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Asia

The struggle to preserve Seoul's architectural heritage

Within a generation, the South Korean capital has transformed from being a shantytown into a modern high-tech metropolis. The city's turbulent times are now a thing of the past. Fabian Kretschmer reports from Seoul.

When Eun Seon Park reflects on her childhood, she talks like a displaced person, who was robbed of her earliest memories. "The residents of Seoul usually have no home, it was taken away from them easily," says the 37-year-old. Her artist group "Listen to the city" is committed to preserving the remaining traces of the city's past. In Seoul this is nothing short of tilting at windmills.

In the mid-1950s, barely half a million people lived in the then war-torn city. But with over 25 million inhabitants now, Seoul now boasts the third largest metropolitan area worldwide. The turbulent times the city had to endure - first under Japanese colonialism, and then later during the Korean War followed by brutal economic growth under the military dictatorship - have been erased from the city's architectural DNA.

Myeongdong for foreigners A shopping street of Myeongdong in downtown Seoul is crowded with foreign tourists on July 15, 2014 (Yonhap)

Activist Park says the struggle to preserve the historic neighborhood is far from being lost

For decades, the government's motto when it came to city planning seemed to be: "taller, faster and farther." Urban transformation swept across the East Asian country like an unstoppable force of nature.

Those who still want to experience the old, shabby Seoul, have to wade through the streets across the Seodaemun military prison, situated just a stone's throw away from the gleaming glass towers of the city center. Rusty water pipes protrude from the outer walls of the houses, and power lines hang at eye level. While the aesthetic value of the "Okbaraji" neighborhood can be argued, it represents one of the saddest chapters of Korean history.

In the 1920s and 30s, the mothers and wives of the Korean men imprisoned for fighting against the Japanese colonial government gathered in the dozens of hotels to prevent their relatives from starving to death. Later, in the 1970s, student activists belonging to the pro-democracy movement sought refuge in the anonymous hotels, and today it serves as home to migrant workers.

For several months, however, the neighborhood has resembled a ghost town, with windows smashed and furniture scattered all around the streets, next to damaged scooters and piles of garbage.

Artistic defiance

The Korean conglomerate "Lotte" has already received the approval of the city government to build another high-rise building in Okbaraji. Activist Park, however, says the struggle to preserve the historic neighborhood is far from being lost.

Her artist grouping was set up by the 40 remaining inhabitants to organize protests against the threat of forced resettlement and raise public awareness of the problem. In fact, by engaging in lengthy negotiations with the Seoul city government, they have for now succeeded in halting the demolition of the area. The activists now organize open-air gigs every Saturday in a bid to lure as many people as possible to the neighborhood.

Two young men in civilian clothes, however, want to prevent exactly that. They patrol through the streets to prevent onlookers from taking photographs. When asked, they present themselves as "private security personnel", hired by the investors.

The role of the underworld

Some analysts point to alleged links between the South Korean authorities and the underworld. The military regimes were known for hiring local gangsters to quell student demonstrations, critics say. With the strengthening of the state over the years, the police have taken charge of such tasks. Ahead of the 1988 Olympics, the authorities forcefully evicted more than 700 thousand people, some of which were illegal tenants.

Experts are puzzled why the incumbent democratic government in South Korea is cooperating with organized criminals for forced evictions - a claim which cannot be substantiated.

In a research paper, Canadian sociologist Jonson Portieux writes that it has become increasingly difficult in a democratic South Korea to order evictions, as the government doesn't want to risk offending the voters. To avoid this, the state has created a legal vacuum. The construction companies are allowed to evict illegal tenants by force, but at least 50 percent of the residents must agree to their plans. Often, however, these companies seek "private help" for these evictions, according to Portieux.

A ghost town

David Kilburn has experienced the dubious entanglements of the Korean construction industry firsthand. In the late 1980s, the British journalist moved to Seoul, where he has since lived in one of the last historical districts wedged between two imperial palaces.

Thousands of people march during a pro-unification rally commemorating the anniversary of Liberation Day, which marks the end of Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, in central Seoul August 15, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won)

Urban transformation has swept across the East Asian country

Around the turn of the millennium, Kilburn saw the bulldozers rolling in his neighborhood. Many houses were demolished and then rebuilt. "I now live in a ghost town full of vacant homes for the super rich," Kilburn said.

Kilburn accuses the "corrupt" district officials for allowing the construction in a neighborhood that should have been preserved according to an approved government plan.

There is no building older then 100 years throughout the historic district of Seoul. One of the last streets from the Joseon Dynasty was demolished in 2009. Korean architect Lim Hyung-nam compared it with the demolition of Buddhist monuments in the late 1990s by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

On April 1, large parts of a neighborhood in the Okbaraji district were razed without any notice to the residents. Hours earlier, an elderly man had set himself on fire out of despair over his eviction. There are still some families living in the district, but it is unclear how far they can go to fight the construction companies.