SKorean evictees recall harsh Olympic clearings
Bucheon, South Korea – When South Korea previously held the Olympics in 1988, Kim Paolo and some 150 other poor urban residents spent months that year hiding in huge graves of their own making.
They were the last among thousands ousted from host city Seoul after losing yearslong, pre-Olympic battles against government officials, police, construction workers and hired thugs. A massive effort to beautify the capital had razed the hundreds of poor neighborhoods to make way for new high-rise buildings. In violent clashes between residents and police, several died and hundreds were injured.
In Bucheon, just west of Seoul, a trio of long pits in the ground near a highway leading to the capital was all the living space Kim and others could wrestle out of city officials. But as soon as they set up makeshift tents in their new holes – in freezing January – Bucheon officials sent dozens of workers to tear them down.
For the city, it was crucial that the scruffy outcasts from Seoul were unseen during the Olympic torch relay, which was to pass that section of the highway. South Korea touted the Seoul Summer Games as its glorious coming-out party to the world, but only after years of effort to hide its poorest citizens.
South Korea has just completed its second Olympics, this time a Winter Games in the sleepy ski resort town of Pyeongchang. All these years later, the thousands of people displaced from their Seoul homes live scattered around the country, often unwilling to talk about their long-forgotten struggle because of fear of stigma or frustration.
Kim, now 61, remembers how aggressive it all was and how their shelters, where they crouched in cave-like sheds under layers of plastic sheeting, felt like the places they would go to die.
“Holes,” he said, “were the only homes they couldn’t break up.”
Sanggyedong was one of many Seoul neighborhoods that came under aggressive redevelopment efforts pushed by a military dictatorship that bid for the Olympics out of desire to gain political legitimacy. A 1989 report from Seoul National University estimates that 48,000 buildings housing 720,000 people were destroyed during the five years preceding the Seoul Games.
The whirlwind of evictions, demolitions and rebuilding left an impact that endures to this day: an overdeveloped megalopolis that still deals with severe shortages in affordable housing; rising household debt mainly blamed on excessive housing; and the use of violence and professional thugs, who continue to be legally accepted at redevelopment sites.
Former Sanggyedong resident Kim Jin-hong, 71, says the events were “like a war.” He says one demolition was particularly brutal, with several excavators rolling into the neighborhood, accompanied by 500 riot police officers and hundreds of private enforcers hired by construction companies.
According to witnesses, activists and media reports, thugs violently dragged people out of their tiny homes. Children were snatched from their mothers and thrown to the ground. Women were sexually threatened. Residents’ most valuable belongings were destroyed.
Police officers used metal shields to surround the blocks of houses smashed by the thugs, construction workers and excavators. A man was killed after being crushed by wreckage and about 100 people were treated for injuries or arrested for protesting.
By the time the Sanggyedong demolitions were completed in April 1987, there were only 73 families left. The constant fear of violence, injury and possible death was unbearable to many. The remaining residents moved into to tents near Seoul’s Myeongdong Cathedral, the epicenter of growing democracy protests that would a few months later force the military regime to accept free presidential elections.
Seoul’s slums had sprouted over the previous decades of rapid industrialization that converted millions of farmers and their children to low-wage factory workers.
By the 1980s, these dense rows of matchbox houses made of wood scraps, concrete blocks and thin slate roofs occupied virtually every available piece of public land on hillsides or near water sources within the city’s boundaries. Seoul had more than 150,000 of these “substandard” houses at the end of 1980, according to government records.
Seoul City officials opposed the Olympics bid due to concern over what to do with the slums. But dictator Chun Doo-hwan pushed ahead, accusing skeptics of “defeatism.”
Experts say Chun’s regime at the time was trying to divert public attention from politics following its bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests in May 1980. The Olympics would also give a crown jewel to Chun’s so-called “3S policy” for relaxing restrictions and promoting “sports, sex and screen.” The early 1980s was also when the country launched its pro baseball league and local movies began showing explicit sex scenes.
Seoul was picked as the host for the 1988 Olympics in October 1981. The house clearings followed not long after.
The last 73 families at the cathedral eventually split. In January 1988, 39 families moved to a deserted orchard east of Seoul. The other 34 households, including Kim Paolo’s, headed for Bucheon where they immediately clashed with the city government.
It wasn’t until late summer 1988, Kim recalls, that Bucheon officials permitted evictees to build simple concrete homes at the site – but not before the Olympics ended.
Ultra-modern Seoul no longer has massive slums. The city still has poor people – and many of them. But they are mostly invisible, wandering between tiny flop houses, 24-hour saunas or cheap motels in their deeply isolated struggles to survive. South Korea has one of the worst rich-poor gaps among developed economies. It has the highest suicide rate by far.
Kim said he never saw the Olympic torch relay that passed the Bucheon site. “Why would I?” he said.
He didn’t care much about the country’s second Olympics either.
“It’s just that not much has changed for poor people,” he said. “They still can’t get a decent place to live.”
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