By Woo Jae-yeon
SEOUL, April 16 (Yonhap) -- In the morning of Jan. 20, 2009, six people -- five protesters and one police officer -- were killed in a blaze atop a gutted building in Yongsan, central Seoul. The five civilian victims were protesting against a forceful eviction by the authorities for a mega urban renewal project.
Nine years has passed. And one man has risked his life for a similar reason: to protect the house that he built in 1986 in Jangwi-dong, northern Seoul. On November 7, he stabbed himself in the abdomen when officials came to forcibly remove him and his wife from the two-story brick house.
"I was so deep in despair. I thought I was only a burden to my family," said Cho Han-jeong, a resident of the neighborhood for 45 years.
In 1985, his father bought the land for his youngest son to build the house and live near him. After Cho moved into the house the next year, he planted a persimmon tree in the front yard. Every autumn, the tree bore hundreds of yellow-orange fruit.
His extended family used to gather in the yard to pick the ripe persimmons in fall. When he seriously hurt himself in November, the branches were drastically trimmed back by his family while harvesting what would be the last fruit from the tree.
On Oct. 23, 2002, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced a plan to tear down and develop some old parts of the city in what it called a "New Town" project.
Then-Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak, who later served as president and was indicted for corruption last week, said on that day, "We are going to change the living environment there so that it has the class and competitiveness that befits the 21st century.
At first, Cho, like everyone else, was excited to hear that the neighborhood would be improved with better infrastructure, although he didn't believe the quiet, clean and peaceful neighborhood needed a serious makeover.
"The picture the city painted was fantastic. It said it would spend 450 billion won to build infrastructure. TV news showed footage of Manhattan when they reported on the project," the 58-year-old said.
"I never imagined this would happen to me."
The redevelopment project divided Jangwi-dong into 15 zones and Cho's house belongs to the seventh zone. On March 20, 2009, the zone's redevelopment union was established after 76.61 percent -- slightly over the minimum requirement of 75 percent -- of the land owners approved the plan. Those opposed had to sell the house according to real estate values determined by certified public appraisers.
In Cho's case, along with those of many others, the value failed to properly reflect market prices. Having injured his back while serving in the military, he doesn't have a regular income. His family lives on the rent from the tenants of four small shops on the first floor and one in the basement.
With the cash compensation, it is impossible to find a house that can provide him with similar monthly income, as the redevelopment project has pushed up real estate prices in nearby areas.
Relevant laws stipulate that the purpose of urban regeneration is to improve the living quality of the residents by recovering the city's basic functions and regulating the maintenance of old, decrepit buildings.
The reality, however, is that many residents can't afford to resettle in a New Town, where old houses are replaced with expensive high-rises.
Not only does the resettlement cause economic hardship, it also takes an emotional toll on the evictees who feel deeply attached to their homes. No amount of remuneration can possibly compensate for the emotional pain.
When Cho was discharged from the hospital after a four-hour operation and three weeks of medical treatment, he installed closed-circuit cameras around his house. So far, there have been three more attempts by the redevelopment union and the legal authorities to forcibly evict him from the house, with the latest on March 29.
His house -- the only residence still inhabited in the seventh zone -- has almost been turned into a fortress. There are multiple entrances, barbed wire, double security locks and steel door bars.
"On the first and second raids, I only thought about death. When they came the third time, I was with around 20 activists who physically stopped them from entering my house," he said.
"Watching activists get injured during the brawl brought tears to my eyes. I could be calm when I considered killing myself, but I became emotional watching those people who came to support me," he said of the fourth raid.
"I hunkered down in the corner and wept."
Among the supporters were students from Korea National University of Arts, which is located nearby. A students' forum called "Dorgozi" has been holding cultural events in front of Cho's house in a show of solidarity.
"I have a lot to say. But if I may say one thing, we don't agree with the way the project has been taken forward," said Oh Seung-won, an organizer of the event. "Native residents, who just can't pay for an apartment, have been violently forced out, and only big construction companies make money."
The city government now understands the ill effects of project-induced displacement, involuntary resettlement and expropriation. The procedures often deny the basic human rights of the evictees, who usually become worse off after being resettled.
In the past few years, the city has looked into the negative impact of redevelopment and the ensuing resettlement. As of Feb. 1, 386 out of 683 zones have been released from the list of redevelopment designated areas.
"Seoul's low-rise neighborhoods keep historic and cultural assets and have long been residential areas for people from all walks of life," it said in a press release on Feb. 1. "Efforts should continue to be made to enhance the living environment in these areas that offer affordable housing and further develop them into places where people want to live."
Kim Sang-chul, a researcher at the Seoul-based Fiscal Reform Institute, said "The biggest irony lies in the fact that most people who urgently need their housing condition to be improved don't benefit from redevelopment."
Citing the less than 20 percent resettlement rates, he added: "Rather than leaving the issue in the hands of private unions, the public sector should be more involved."
Months of extreme psychological and physical suffering -- hospitalization, weight loss and sleepless nights -- have taken a heavy toll on Cho. He is unrecognizable compared to the smiling, healthy face seen in a photo taken in October.
"I felt like dying in a deep forest all alone. Now I am very happy because I feel like people are keeping me company on my deathbed," he joked with a faint smile on his lips.
He has, however, become less suicidal.
"I will survive and tell the world how wrongful the process has been. People around me have given me a new sense of purpose."
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