Transient town

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Transient town

The name of the district lingers long, like a twilight shadow Haebangchon, which means "liberation village" and is built upon thousands of refugees from North Korea after the Korean War.

Bordered on the east by the bustling shopping district of Itaewon, on the southwest by the U.S. Army's Yongsan Garrison, and to the north by Namsan road, Haebangchon has often been compared to "a child born out of wedlock" by older Koreans, describing the birth of a new part of town that nobody wanted.

Fifty years ago, Christian churches played a vital role in helping refugees adjust to their new homes. Pyeongyang, one of the first cities foreign missionaries came to in Korea, back then was often referred to as the "Jerusalem of the East." More than three-fourths of the population of Haebangchon in the 1960s were people who had fled the North Korean capital and the surrounding Pyeongan provinces. The neighborhood soon filled with Christian churches, even before many residents had proper homes.

Haebang Presbyterian Church, which stands in the center of the neighborhood and is one of the highest edifices in the Yongsan area, is the most visible fruit of those efforts. The church, started by a modest number of North Korean refugees in 1947, now has about 1,200 middle-class members, including Kim Jang-ho, a resident of Haebangchon for 40 years and a retired elementary school principal.

"It's an interesting part of town," says the 76-year-old elder in the church as he walks in the Haebangchon traditional market, one of the hidden treasures in the district, still rich in an exotic atmosphere from the Japanese colonial period. "There are so many churches in the area, but there are also a lot of shamans and fortune-tellers on the street corners. It's a mix of strange tensions."

Before the war, Haebangchon originally was a vast pine grove that was home to Joseon Singung, a royal shrine to the gods that the Japanese built partway up the slope of Mount Namsan as a symbol of their control of Korea. Around the shrine stood huts for Japanese troops, a military prison and residences for high-ranking Japanese officials who arrived right after the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.

The area since then has undergone some dramatic changes in terms of occupants. The first refugees from North Korea flooded in during the 1940s and '50s. Then the U.S. military authorities ordered the refugees' expulsion from the area so it could be used as a military base, but instead they took over the lower land to the south, near Yongsan 4-ga.

Later, during the industrial boom, farmers from the Jeolla region came to Haebangchon to work in the city's garment factories. Others in the area made a modest living by folding envelopes or rolling tobacco into cigarettes. But Mr. Kim says the most money went to refugees who sold large quantities of wool sweaters to merchants in Namdaemun market, just on the other side of the mountain. "Anyone who could make sweaters fast and carry them to Namdaemun with a coolie rack got the most money back then," he says. According to Mr. Kim, a great number of refugees saved their money and emigrated to Argentina in the mid-1970s to set up their own textile companies. "Those poor refugees who left North Korea had to abandon their homes once again," says Mr. Kim. "I even heard from people that those who made more money in Argentina later moved to America to settle down there for good."

But for most people who stayed behind, changes in Haebangchon came rather slowly. When the No. 4 subway line was built, pressure from the U.S. military scuttled plans for a station nearby the neighborhood. "It's a major source of discontent which many Yongsan residents share, especially people in Haebangchon," says Mr. Kim. "The army base just won't allow any area development."

The people who stayed behind in Haebangchon also had to endure poor government planning during the rapid modernization of the city. Most slate-roof houses were replaced by small, multiresidential homes without consideration of road capacity. Current residents often worry that should an emergency such as a fire occur, their houses would become a heap of ashes before fire trucks could pass through the narrow streets.

Recently, Mr. Kim has heard complaints by parents that the area has become "a disaster" because some undiscriminating Korean landowners started renting apartments to foreign laborers. It's a xenophobic sentiment, much as residents have expressed toward each new wave of settlers. In the old days, it was the Japanese against the Koreans, then the South Koreans against the North Korean refugees and now it's Koreans against foreigners. Fortunately, it's a feeling that all do not share. "The laborers don't cause trouble in this neighborhood. They're harmless," says one shop owner near Bosung Women's Junior High School.

Now the area is mostly lower-middle-class families who have moved here for practical reasons, not by choice. "Not many North Korean refugees still live here," says Mr. Kim. Though some senior members show up each Sunday at the old Haebang Presbyterian Church, even though they have moved out the neighborhood, Mr. Kim says it has almost become a routine that the residents here move to another part of town once they save enough money. "People just prefer a better place to live when their life improves," says Mr. Kim. "Education for children is an important reason. Many villagers have moved to Gangnam to send their kids to better schools."

Meanwhile, Haebangchon may be the "liberation village," but in many ways it is still a prisoner to its past.

by Park Soo-mee

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