Standoff at Bangbae-dong

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Standoff at Bangbae-dong

In front of a building that resembles a scene from a war zone, a small, thin man stands holding a cell phone. Beyond him, behind a barricade of barbed wire and truck tires, a small door, so low that you have to duck to enter, leads to the inside of the bombed out building. The inside of the building does not look much better; empty bottles roll around on the floor, while pipes and scraps of wood are scattered here and there. On the stairs, boxes of instant noodles sit stockpiled, indicating that someone must be living inside.

"We've been living here since Dec. 4," says Kim Joo-hong, 56, who more or less is in charge of the battered shelter. Mr. Kim belongs to a committee that has been created by shop owners at the two-story Bangrim San Up building in Bangbae-dong, southern Seoul. About 50 people have been living inside the building, taking a last stand for their shops. Their will was tested Dec. 4 when enforcers stormed the building and tried remove the occupants.

Mr. Kim remembers how that day went. "They came in the morning to pull us out of the building, but we gave them a bloody nose. This is where we belong. Nobody can make us give up our lives."

What enrages Mr. Kim most is that the police stood by and did nothing while the incident took place. "There was a woman with us and she was beaten up and thrown to the ground by those people. She was lying on the street unconscious for a while, and the police just watched her."

Those who have barricaded themselves inside the building do not, as one might say, have a legal leg to stand on. Most of the people owning shops in the building have been there since 1980. They paid their rent to the building's original owner. Nevertheless, a legal battle for ownership of the building started in 1993, when the original owner was sued. In July 2000, the original owner lost title to the building and shortly after that the new owner filed a court order for the tenants to vacate. For shop owners who had a contract with the original owner to do business there until 2004, the order to leave had serious consequences: They would have to find a new place to make a living, and do so in a hurry.

Still, negotiations between the shop owners and the new owner took place in December 2001 and early 2002. The talks were partially successful, for only about two-thirds of the 85 shop owners accepted the new owner's terms to move out. The shop owners were offered undisclosed sums of money as compensation and were given preferred buying status for the shops at a new building that is scheduled to be built by the new owner on the same premises.

The remainder of the shop owners refused to settle and vowed to defend their places of livelihood. Finally, the Seocho court declared the building had to be emptied for the new owner, and on Dec. 4, Se Kyung Consulting, a private firm that specializes in "clearing buildings," sent in employees to do the vacating work.

Almost 500 riot policemen, dressed in heavy padding and helmets and carrying shields, were in place to oversee the vacating that Wednesday morning. Not surprisingly, the evacuation of the building did not go smoothly. Although about 200 employees of Se Kyung's "clearing team" tried to enter the building, their attempts failed as the shop owners formed a human barricade in front of the entrance and threw buckets of paint and eggs at the enforcers.

"Those men who tried to come in here were thugs who are paid to beat up and intimidate people," says Mr. Kim.

After the clash, 18 shop owners, many of them women who had formed a human shield in front of the entrance, had to be treated at nearby hospitals.

The media coverage of the incident seemed to favor the shop owners, as television stations ran footage of muscular men waving sticks and attempting to rush the building. The homepage of the Seocho police station, which is responsible for the building's district, and whose combat police were at the scene, was bombarded the following day with e-mail from people who had seen the incident on TV. Much of the e-mail criticized the police for doing nothing while mercenary bruisers thumped on poor citizens who were simply trying to earn a wage.

The police disagree. Lee Kwang-il, the section chief at the Seocho station house, says, "What many people do not realize is that the enforcers were trying to uphold the law. The order to clear the building had been issued a long time ago. The police tried to negotiate a deal between the involved parties in order to avoid what happened."

As for the criticism that police stood by while strong-arms knocked around innocent people, even using police shields in the fray, Mr. Lee says that violence may have been used a few times, but those were isolated cases. "Now, let's be honest. Do you really think that a bunch of ajumma locking arms could stop these people? Shaking his head, he adds, "After all, I mean they are what they are."

Mr. Lee insists that the presence of the police kept the enforcers from using even more violence that could have resulted in far more serious injuries. "The situation was under control because of us. Who knows what might have happened if we weren't there. Those shop people could have spilled gasoline and set it on fire."

Mr. Lee is quick to say that before the enforcers were sent in that day they were explicitly warned that they would be held responsible for any acts of violence. "And let's not forget that these people were trying to enforce the law."

No arrests were made that day, but police officials say they expect arrests on both sides to be made soon.

Yeom Chang-hwan, the chief executive officer of Se Kyung Consulting, believes that his people did nothing wrong. "I am a businessman. Buildings have to be cleared and that's what I do for living. I abide by the law and I tried to enforce a legal order."

Mr. Yeom says that 14 of his employees had to be hospitalized because of injuries received, mostly from being hit by rocks and bottles. "We are not the bad guys. We are quasi-public servants the moment we begin to enforce the law. Did you know that?"

Mr. Lee says that the clearing team members operate under the protection of the law as "quasi-public servants" because someone has to do this job, and under current laws, nothing is going to change.

According to Mr. Lee clearings buildings is enforcing a civil law, thus making the involvement of the police impossible unless a crime occurs. In other words, the police will get only involved after the action has taken place. "I wish the police would get involved right from the beginning. But the problem is that Seoul's high-ranking police officials are very cautious about negative publicity. We don't like to get involved in things that will bring flak from the public."

With a sigh, Mr. Lee adds that his hands are tied under the current conditions. "The guidelines that we receive before such an enforcement are to let the enforcers handle the situation unless the violence gets out of hand and cannot be ignored." A pause, then: "Do you think anyone can explain to me what that means exactly? 'Unless the violence gets out of hand.?' As you can see, for us it's a dilemma."

In Korea, many old buildings and poor slums have been cleared in the name of urban renewal. Each time, hired hands had to become enforcers and battles between them and existing occupants occurred. The battles are often violent, but they're always the same: One side trying to protect its means of making a living and/or a living place, the other side trying to enforce the law.

The irony is that to many people the hired enforcers are often not model citizens.

On occasion, these tenant-clearing team wars have resulted in savage beatings, alleged rapes and even fatalities. On Nov. 28, 1995, Lee Duck-in's tied-up body was found dumped on a beach at Incheon, not far from the vacant lot where he sold noodles from a cart. The land's owner had told Mr. Lee to vacate the lot. He had been protesting his removal for some time when a scuffle broke out that day. Last August, after an investigation by the Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths, authorities said that Mr. Lee had died of "excessive use of public power."

Back in Bangbae-dong, Baek Seung-gil, 51, stands in the doorway of the Bangrim San Up building. "Those men came back a couple of times threatening to kill us all while we were sleeping," says Ms. Baek, owner of a mom-and-pop electronics shop in the battered building.

On Dec. 4, Ms. Baek had been thrown to the ground and punched repeatedly by an enforcer, causing her to be hospitalized. She vows to continue her fight.

"If I leave here I'll lose everything," she says. "I'll only leave here when I am dead."

by Brian Lee

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