In a case of living vs. deceased, who will get the best view?
Owning a home is a big deal in Korea.
Soaring home prices, especially in recent years, have not only made real estate an attractive investment but have also pushed those who rent to the edge of a cliff as they can no longer afford to pay jeonse (a rental system common in Korea in which tenants pay a large deposit upfront in lieu of monthly rent), which has also skyrocketed in line with housing prices.
That is why people have been doing everything they can to win the right to purchase new presale apartments in or near Seoul.
In Korea, the only way to purchase a brand-new apartment unit is through the housing subscription system which offers presale apartments. Presale homes are made available a few years ahead of the construction completion date, with potential home-seekers agreeing to sign a contract far in advance to reserve their right of purchase. Prerequisites to qualify for housing subscription include opening a housing subscription total savings account and paying a monthly deposit. The number of applicants often exceeds the supply, turning the whole system into a lottery.
About 3,400 households became the lucky ones to win the right to purchase an apartment unit in Incheon’s Geomdan New Town in 2019 after fierce competition.
However, nearly half of those households have now found that their dream of moving into a new home is on the brink of being shattered — literally.
Last May, after finding out that Geomdan New Town’s three high-rise apartment complexes were being built too close to Jangneung, a royal tomb of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) located in Gimpo, Gyoenggi, the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) abruptly ordered the suspension of the "illegal" construction.
The CHA filed a police complaint and ultimately the construction came to a halt last September.
Under the current cultural properties protection act, construction companies must obtain a separate authorization from the CHA, as well as related district offices, to construct buildings that are over 20 meters tall (65.62 feet) within 500 meters of a designated cultural property. Among the 44 apartment buildings being constructed in Geomdan New Town, 19 of them, some of which are as high as 25 stories, are located within 500 meters of the royal tomb.
“The construction in Geomdan New Town is illegal as approval was not obtained from the CHA,” said Kim Hyun-mo, the head of the CHA while being questioned about the issue during a regular parliamentary hearing of the administration on Oct. 21.
If demolishing all 19 buildings is impossible considering the damage it would incur on prospective residents, the CHA insists that the buildings should be lowered according to the new guidelines set by its Cultural Heritage Committee.
The committee announced the new guidelines in early December of last year, ordering the 19 buildings to lose the top five to 15 floors in order to secure the view of Mount Gyeyang from Jangneung. The two are about seven kilometers (4.3 miles) away from each other. Mount Gyeyang is about 395 meters tall, making it the second highest mountain in Incheon. Securing the view of Mount Gyeyang from Jangneung was considered significant when Jangnueng was being established during the Joseon Dynasty and ultimately helped earn the site Unesco World Heritage status.
Jangneung is one of 40 royal tombs of the Joseon Dynasty that was granted Unesco World Heritage Status in 2009. The 40 tombs scattered across Seoul and Jangneung are considered some of the most propitious sites regarding pungsu jiri, the Korean version of feng shui, or geomancy. Unesco cited that the “spots of outstanding natural beauty were chosen for the tombs which typically have their back protected by a hill as they face south toward water and ideally, layers of mountain ridges in the distance,” as one of the reasons the title was granted.
The tomb is for Prince Jeongwon (1580-1619), also known as Wonjong, and his wife Queen Inheon, who are the parents of King Injo, the 16th king of Joseon.
Using Germany’s Dresden Elbe Valley, which lost its Unesco World Heritage title after a four-lane bridge was constructed in the heart of the cultural landscape, as an example, the CHA said it is highly likely that the Joseon Royal Tombs will lose their title for the same reason — failure to keep its “outstanding universal value as inscribed.”
“All 40 royal tombs of the Joseon Dynasty that are scattered across Seoul will lose the title if Jangneung fails to meet the Unesco standard,” said Kim from the CHA. “It’s all or none, as the royal tombs were designated as a collection of Joseon Royal Tombs, not as single sites.”
However, the three construction companies building the apartment complexes in Geomdan — Daebang Construction, Daekwang Construction and Kumsung BaekJoe Construction — argue that the CHA’s claim that they are engaging in “illegal construction” is nonsense as building can only proceed after a green light from the government, which they say they got back in 2014.
The issue is no longer just a concern for the 3,400 families slated to move into their new homes from July, but for all the public.
On Sept. 17 a petition was posted on the Blue House website, requesting the demolition of the buildings. It garnered 216,045 signatures in one month. If an online petition gets more than 200,000 signatures from petitioners within 30 days, a relevant and high-level government official must respond.
"The apartment complexes in question disrupt the landscape of the royal tomb and nearby Mount Gyeyang, seriously harming the value of the tomb as a cultural heritage site," the petitioner wrote. "The complexes should be demolished as their construction, which skipped the approval process, is illegal. If authorities let the construction go ahead and do not hold local governments or construction companies responsible, it will set a bad precedent for handling cultural heritage sites."
So, who is in the wrong?
The beginning of the issue goes back to June 2007 when the government designated Geomdan as a new town development site. Two years later in June 2009, the Joseon Royal Tombs earned the Unesco designation. In August 2014, the Incheon Housing and City Development Corporation (iH), which back then owned the site, obtained approval from the Gimpo City Government to construct apartment complexes near Jangneung. In June 2017, the iH sold the sites to different developers, who each signed a contract with the three construction companies.
Why did the Gimpo City Government approve the construction in 2014?
The Gimpo City Government released a statement last month stating that the document submitted by the iH in 2014 was a mere business plan that only indicated limited information.
“A proper document to receive approval should detail information such as elevation, number of floors, cross-section plans as well as the design of the structure [...] However, the iH failed to submit such information,” said the city government in the statement. “Therefore, the approval given in 2014 cannot be seen as approval for construction. The developer should have submitted additional information in order to begin the construction, but that did not happen.”
This all took place before the CHA revised the Cultural Heritage Protection Act in January 2017, which states that construction companies seeking to build a structure with a height of more than 20 meters within a 500-meter radius of a cultural heritage site must receive separate approvals from related authorities. Before the revision, construction companies had to follow the relevant city or provincial government’s city planning laws.
Issues about Geomdan New Town first arose when the developer changed around the same time when revisions to the plans were made.
In June 2017, iH sold the site to the three different developers who have each signed a contract with the three construction companies. The new developers purchased this “government-authorized site for development” and submitted detailed plans to the Seo District Office, which was the relevant government office before the revision of the Cultural Heritage Protection Act.
Gimpo City blames Incheon’s Seo District Office for neglecting the revised regulations which it was informed about “by the CHA in January 2017,” and giving the construction companies the green light, "which is illegal," to begin building in March 2019.
Seo District Office insists it was not told about the revisions.
“Seo District Office even allowed the apartment buildings to be as high as 79.5 meters, thinking just about the profit it will bring to the district,” Gimpo City Government stated. “We are sure that the district office was aware of the revision as it had requested that the standards be eased as soon as the announcement was made at the end of 2016.”
By the time the CHA realized the construction at Geomdan New Town in May 2021 was illegal, it was too late. It had been more than two years since ground was broken at the problematic site and 76 percent of the construction was completed. The concrete framework of all the apartment buildings was finished and the construction companies were working on the interior.
But why did it take so long for the CHA to become aware of this problem?
“It’s because of the reporting system,” explained Park Jung-seop, a spokesman for the CHA. “Although we manage Jangneung directly, the construction plans get reported to us through a civil service center that handles all the other permissions necessary in constructing a building. In the process, I believe such revision of the act was omitted and the CHA failed to receive any reports.”
According to Park, it was only around last May when one of its officials who visited Jangneung noticed the high-rise buildings and reported back to the administration.
“We are in talks about reorganizing this reporting system,” Park said.
The CHA is accusing the construction companies and Seo District Office of failing to go through the preliminary procedures required for the construction near Jangneung, which is “an obvious act of negligence.”
Meanwhile, the three construction companies that purchased the site for development from the iH in June 2017, are arguing that they “feel victimized for getting all the blame” when all they did was “build at an authorized site in accordance with the law.”
Seo District Office also refuses to back down, insisting that there was nothing wrong in its administrative procedures and that the construction is “legal” as it received the authorization in 2014. It also argues that the CHA failed to properly inform the office of the revised regulations, which ultimately created this “disaster.”
After being forced to suspend operations, the construction firms filed for a provisional injunction. The court sided with the companies saying that the "construction should go ahead to minimize the damages that the prospective residents would have to face." The construction resumed on Dec. 10. The CHA immediately appealed to the Supreme Court.
“I think a ruling will be announced by the Supreme Court soon,” said Park from the CHA.
The CHA said it is determined to act in accordance with the laws and principles to protect Korea’s cultural heritages.
"If we allow it this time, it goes against fairness and other construction companies that abided by the rules and we lose the justification to protect other cultural properties in the future,” said Park.
While the government offices and the construction companies are pointing fingers at each other, the prospective owners of the problematic apartments at Geomdan New Town are the ones having sleepless nights, suffering financial and emotional damage.
“My family will have to live on the streets if the construction fails to meet its deadline. I don’t even want to imagine the buildings getting torn down,” said a 34-year-old surnamed Kim, who’s been getting ready to move into one of the 16 buildings in July.
“Shouldn’t we, the living, have our rights protected before considering the deceased ancestors’ tomb site losing its beautiful scenery?”
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [email@example.com]