Poi-dong, a gloomy shantytown, Part 1

Disclaimer: The following is a totally personal unauthoritative English translation of an article appeared at one of  South Korean progressive online media, Pressian, in Sep. 6, 2011. As such, the post can be scrapped away immediately by the request of its original author or ‘Pressian’. The article was the first of three-piece series that touches the issue of inner city problem which lingers in the most wealthy neighborhood in Seoul, truly international capital of South Korea. Not only the location of the shantytown which makes dramatic contrast against neighboring “Tower Palace” one of the most luxurious and expensive residential complexes in Korea makes the story distinctive; the history how the town came to exist there in the first place in 1981, the year Seoul was selected to host the 24th Olympic games in 1988, and why they still stay there makes the story all the more illuminating from the perspective of modern Korean history. At the bottom of this post, the link to original article (in Korean) can be located.

Se-hoon Oh (the ex-mayor of Seoul city) brand welfare, painful more than the memory of ‘waterboarding with chilli peppered water’

[Poi-dong, a gloomy shantytown, 1] A 10-year-old boy, “Living in a shantytown is as sad as this earth”

266 Poi-dong where a big fire broke out last June is an archetypal welfare blind spot. A strange shantytown in the middle of Gangnam, the Mecca of wealth and education. 266 Poi-dong is not only a residential area but also a ground zero of labor for its residents. In a series of three articles, Korean Temporary Worker Center will address issues of our own government’s administrative violence and words only welfare policy that stripped even the chance of escaping poverty and the 30-year-long history of human rights violation to residents of 266 Poi-dong. <Contributor>

A movie titled ‘no body knows’. This movie is striking because it is based on a real story. Kids dumped by their own mom living in a room trashed with a heap of garbages eating outdated foods are not the creation of a theatrical imagination; they are real. When apartments’ thick iron doors close, however,  that’s it; ‘no body knows’ about their lives. The kids fade away from the world and will eventually be forgotten. They really ‘go die’ like that.

Lives divorced from the world; they are our own stories too. 266 Poi-dong, at the heart of luxurious uptown. They have been there for the past 30 years but no body knew how they lived. They were simply backgrounds that made the name ‘Gangnam Daechi-dong’, the Mecca of wealth and education, uncomfortable. Nothing more nothing less. People sympathize their lives on the one hand; on the other hand, however, they want them to disappear. In a capitalistic society, people mature when they learn how to throw away sympathy and survival in a competition-dominated society becomes much easier by that. Although their misfortunes make people feel bad, people file complaints to administration offices outright since their home prices will climb up if they go away. This kind of events that happen around us (or to us) often make us believe that something beyond the bondage of ‘human being’ does command the capitalistic society. Those who are really alive in 266 Poi-dong, in this sense, become those who should not be alive. And they are losing their places to strive in this country.

Poi-dong, an archetypal shantytown in Gangnam-gu, Seoul, against "Tower Palace" far behind. (Photo by Hye-jung Lee)

As sad as “this earth”

Seven years ago, an investigative media program ‘PD journal’ aired the lives of Poi-dong residents who had been resisting against 23 years of forced sorrow. Although the ‘Shantytown beside Tower Palace, a report of 23 years’ becomes ’30 years’ now, their lives become much more wretched. They say their own lives are wretched. What would be the weight of wretchedness, not as the word itself but as something that should be borne by their own lives, to them? Sang-woo who was 3rd grade in elementary school 7 years ago replied, “this earth”. A 10-year old boy of low, round shoulder murmured this with his back facing the camera. Something so much and so huge to his mind. The earth which he happened to put his two small feet on was, in its own sense, sadness itself. Sangwoo, now 17, is still bonded by the poverty which his parents have not been able to break free from.

“How come they were not born in some wealthy family but in this poor one … how come it became a sin which they should be humiliated this much on …”

Mr. Cheol-soon Cho, the head of residents committee, could not even finish his own words as soon as the interview touches the issue of his children. All residents seemed to feel distressed to mention anything about their kids. One by one, every sentence seemed to weigh in too much for their fragile lives.

Messy household goods (Photo by Hye-jung Lee)

Ex-mayor Mr. Se-hoon Oh’s welfare policy, something without beneficiary

Facing general election next year, ruling and opposition parties all clash face to face on disputes surrounding welfare policy to buy hearts of voters. As the final plot in this taut welfare dispute, Mr. Se-hoon Oh, now the ex-mayor of Seoul city, dropped tears and knelt down in open public but the showdown turned out to be his complete defeat. The dissolution of referendum proposed by Mr. Oh meant more than simple disagreement to welfare propaganda Mr. Oh and Grand National Party (GNP) tried to sell; it reflected the reality that people did not believe in them any more. In fact, contrary to his high-pitched voices promising more welfare budget to children of low income families, Mr. Oh revealed his outright coldness by turning his back to children of 266 Poi-dong who were dying of tuberculosis, a typical ‘poverty disease’, pressed from debts of their parents.

In 2007, Mr. Oh promised to residents of Poi-dong shantytown that he would compensate for their sorrowful past but he flipped his own words in a few months. He announced a plan to build a luxurious long term leasing apartment complex called ‘Shift’ in the residential area of Poi-dong people without any explanation or discussion. Not only the deposits but also the rents of units in this complex would be preposterously expensive to Poi-dong residents and other poor people. Poi-dong children who were pressed down by the weight of poverty as huge as the earth itself were not among those of low-income bracket in Mr. Oh’s idea. Besides, GNP including Mr. Oh who literally owns the whole Gangnam electoral district added debts that could not be easily broken free from to them. Since 1990, the administration of this country started to impose fines in the name of land indemnity from them accusing them for illegally occupying public land. For some family, this debt which is still levied in 2011 already passes 100M KRW (93.3K USD). Common sense tells us that Mr. Oh should have written off the debts of current generation rather than talking about debts of future generation.

Government officials, fearful people

Although they thought it wasn’t right, residents of Poi-dong did not dare to protest it to Gangnam-gu office until 2003. People who issued resident registration cards to Poi-dong residents when they turned 19 or 20. People who hauled, tortured, clobbered, and exploited them when necessary. People who broke into their burnt down home ruins with their own shoes on and squashed their last remaining hopes by tearing down those home ruins. They were government officials. They forced homeless poor people floating around in the aftermaths of Korean war to move into Poi-dong in the name of ‘self-supporting labor troop’ about 30 years ago and oversaw them until 1988 (the year Seoul Olympic games were held). Residents had to live by their rules not knowing what legal rights they had as citizens of this country.

“Over there under the zelkova tree is the best. Three or four policemen or government officials watched us setting out to work lying on a wide wood table there. I was not able to pass through this shortcut then. I always took a long way around. Even now, I try to avoid them when I see them even though I didn’t do anything wrong. Since we were under the control of policemen or government officials from the beginning, what they said were laws here.”

Mr. Dong-sik Park used the word ‘control’. A time when they had to be guilty even though they didn’t do anything wrong. Administrative violence trampled every corner of their lives. At times of general crackdown against organized gangsters, it was this Poi-dong where policemen came first to complete their own assigned quotas.

“They just rushed into our room in their military boots while we were sleeping, dragged us out and hauled us to the station. They could make out of us anything with waterboarding. If they simply pour water on your face, you can ‘pooh pooh’ spit it out, right? But if they soak water to some cotton cloth and stick it to your face, it gets stuck to your face. If they pour water on it, it won’t go out by simple ‘pooh pooh’. The water just comes in. And suppose they put some hot red chilly in the water. It kills you. Anything will automatically come out of you out of thing.”

Mr. Man-woo Kim said waterboarding would not make the list of tortures and laughed. To them, government officials were just something to be feared, nothing more nothing less.

Trashed rooftops (Photo by Hye-jung Lee)

Dong-sik Park, a name they made to you

Residents of Poi-dong were dumped here about 30 years ago, not knowing why, and are about to be kicked out of it now as illegal occupants of public land with hundreds of millions of KRW (tens of thousands of USD) in debt for each family, again not knowing why. The painful past they’ve been stuck to was beyond something onerous; it was in fact unrealistic. One early morning 30 years ago, they were kicked and awakened under a bridge and carried to this place, 266 Poi-dong, on trucks and dumped. On the mire where no one could walk without any boots on, they leveled the ground with coal briquette ashes and dirts and built their homes. To those who don’t know their true home towns and have been living over half of their lives, this is nothing more than their home town.

“Daringly, this is my home town.”

Mr. Dong-sik Park said with full of scars on his face. He who made his resident registration card in 1979 started to stammer about his existence, something no one had cared for before.

“Frankly, I don’t know exactly how old I am. Because I wandered around orphanages since I was very young, I didn’t have any idea of resident registration card. The policeman who was overlooking me made it for me. At that time, I even felt grateful to him from the idea that he was setting up a family registry for me.”

In 1979, he recorded his life whose beginning was still uncertain for the first time; he survived. Although he had run out of an orphanage when very young, although he left the space for parents blank in the registry and he didn’t know anything about his parents, he survived.

“All my friends were born in 1953 or 1955. But the policeman who was in charge of me when I was making it said ‘It violates the law so let it be 1960’ and that became my birth year. For my name, people had called me ‘Dong-sik, Dong-sik’ since when I had been very young so the policeman said ‘then, let it be Dong-sik. What would be nice for your family name?’, ‘Well … what do you think would be nice?’, ‘Park. You look like a heavy drunker’ and I became Dong-sik Park.”

Though it was done casually, he felt grateful for that. “Wasn’t it grateful? Anyway he made something I didn’t have” he laughed. “It somehow proves that I am still alive in this world.”

Welfare policy of GNP, driving residents away?

The fact that welfare policy for the poor by Mr. Oh and GNP misses it mark is evident when you simply look at 266 Poi-dong. In fact, teaming with Mr. Oh, Mr. Youn-hee Shin, the head of Gangnam-gu also a GNP member, has been tossing the responsibility to each other and has rejected any meeting with residents. Still, Gangnam-gu has kept demanding residents to move to rental houses. Then, why the residents cannot accept the rental houses? That’s because of the land indemnity that has been levied since 1990. Even though they want to move to rental houses, their rental deposits will be attached right away as soon as they move in. Gangnam-gu who knows the whole story, however, urged residents to move to rental houses without any measures. At the fierce resistance from residents, they announced that ‘they would not look for attaching rental deposits for land indemnity reasons’ last July 25. Even in this circumstance, attachment to any properties other than rental deposits will be unavoidable. Therefore, unless the administration scraps the land indemnity entirely, residents can only inherit debts over hundreds of millions of KRW (tens of thousands of USD) to their children. Regarding this issue, Mr. In-won Lee who works in city planning section of Gangnam-gu office nailed it down as “That’s not the case.”

“We do not attach not only deposits to rental houses but also any wages or bank deposits for those who are really in need. We never did that either.”

However, real life stories for Poi-dong residents were far from the explanation by Mr. Lee. In 2004, one couple committed suicides in 266 Poi-dong. They wanted to be beneficiaries of basic welfare provisions since they could not afford to husband’s hospital bills. But they failed because they had an attached old truck. It was attached due to the land indemnity. They could not even scrap it because it was attached. Sick husband committed suicide first. One month later, the wife who had been doing janitorial jobs followed suit. The response from Gangnam-gu office that they never attached any property for land indemnity reasons even though this incident was publicized already made me realize their intention to deny everything about this incident. Maybe, they want to deny sheer existence of all who live in 266 Poi-dong.

266 Poi-dong (Photo by Hye-jung Lee)

“People in need” for Mr. Oh does not mean residents of Poi-dong

The thing Mr. Oh mentioned at his resignation press conference “welfare policy to soothe people from those in need” has never happened at least in 266 Poi-dong. He knew the tough situation of Poi-dong residents well but turned away from them; so does the Gangnam-gu office.

Mr. Tae-geun Kang, the head of city planning team of Gangnam-gu office said that formal official documents were sent to residents without any precondition in August 19. However, residents didn’t take them for lack of credibility because all clauses in the document ended like ‘… will be examined soon after consulting to Seoul city.’ To complaints like ‘it is just a documentation that says they may either do it or not’, Mr. Kang protested he could not understand the difference between ‘will examine it’ and ‘will do it’.

“It’s just a word game. If they insist they are different, let them tear down all buildings. We will put those words in the document then.”

He reversed his position they had sent official documents ‘without any precondition’ to ‘if they tear down all buildings’. On top of that, he reaffirmed Gangnam-gu office’s intention that they can either do it or not.

“We don’t know how Seoul city will respond, right? For instance, let’s say we agree to decide as late as the end of September. Then, what if Seoul city will not have done anything until that … then huge commotion will break out since Gangnam-gu office eats up its own words.”

This was the answer to a question what he meant by the word ‘soon’. He acknowledged that there was no exact timeline when Gangnam-gu office would do what it proposed. As Mr. Kang has convinced, Gangnam-gu office made the official document in a way that they could toss the whole responsibility to Seoul city’s side when they would not do what they proposed. While Mr. Oh and the head of Gangnam-gu office were tossing their responsibilities to each other like this, residents were falling deep down to despair.

266 Poi-dong (Photo by Hye-jung Lee)

All they have now is death

At a time when their lives that took  more than 30 years to cultivate are burnt to ashes now, they stand there with their own bodies only. They say they cannot find any hope in a world where their will to live is tagged illegal.

“They say administrative execution will come in again … That guy is a 30-year long buddy of mine. We even said to each other yesterday to hold on to each other with kerosine and die together.”

Mr. Dong-sik Park asked me back how he could hand this desperation down to his children. He said it should end at his own generation.

We really need to take actions before people and their children will be forgotten and go dead ‘unnoticed’ in the middle of inherited unescapable poverty. Now at a time when welfare has surfaced as hot potato, we need to talk seriously not only about inheriting wealth but also about inheriting poverty. Whoever it will be, any new mayor of Seoul should pay heed to welfare blind spots scattered everywhere now to avoid the footsteps of Mr. Oh who had to step down in the wake of welfare disputes.

Mr. Dong-sik Park says “what good is it to live in this misery?”

A grandmother who came in here 30 years ago and becomes 82 now says “Hew, I can’t bear to live now. How can I see my house be torn down? I would rather die then.”

If Seoul cannot be a “gracious” city or a city where “all citizens are happy” as has been touted by ex-mayor Mr. Oh, should it not be a city where “citizens feel miserable” to live? Seoul city and Gangnam-gu office should propose some tangible welfare plan to 266 Poi-dong residents who think they have nothing but death to come now. Welfare dispute at a city where very basic human rights are not upheld is not just hollow; it’s in fact too early.

Poi-dong, shantytown burnt down by a big fire last June. (Photo by Sang-yup Lee)

Hye-jung Lee (Korean Temporary Worker Center, Chief Editor)

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