SOUTH KOREA: Seoul city fails to respect and protect the right to adequate housing leading a tenant’s suicide 

December 18, 2009

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

SOUTH KOREA: Seoul city fails to respect and protect the right to adequate housing leading a tenant’s suicide

On 2 December 2009, 66 year-old man, Mr. Kim committed suicide. He lived in a Yong Gang apartment which was in the process of being demolished by Seoul metropolitan government under a redevelopment project called ‘Han river Renaissance’ which constructs new apartments as well as a public park.

At the time he died there were around 15 households out of 500 still living in Yong Gang apartments. The deceased was waiting for a house to rent to which his family applied. It is reported that the deceased had an argument with the person carrying out the demolition of Block 5 where his flat is located.

According to the Comprehensive Plan for the Tenants launched by the Seoul government on 26 November 2008, it is prohibited to destroy buildings during the winter season ranging from December to February. If unavoidable, the agent is required to relocate residents to an adequate place before starting demolition.

Despite this policy, the demolition in Wangship-li started the month after launching the Plan, during the winter season. The demolition of the Yong Gang apartments, in Mapo-gu, was initiated in November 2009 and the Ok In apartment, in Jonglo-gu, started demolition work on the whole building on 10 December 2009. The agent for the redevelopment of Wangship-li is a private construction company whereas the Seoul government is the agent for the other apartments in Mapo-gu and Jonglo-gu.

This demolition contravenes government policy and law infringing the right to adequate housing of the residents. The government claimed that demolition had not happened to houses where the residents still lived. However, there were 15 households still living in apartments that were adjoined to demolished apartments, thus threatening the security of life. Currently six households live in Yong Gang apartments.

Human rights violations occurring in the process of demolition of houses is not new in South Korea. The government of South Korea, since the June democratization movement in 1987, shifted its responsibility for redevelopment to the private sectors. Consequently, the private agents for redevelopment projects started employing a private service company for demolition work. These service companies reportedly comprise violent groups which commit violent acts against residents who are reluctant to move or are in the process of negotiating with the development agency.

Since then, the government has been neglecting its duty to intervene in disputes between residents and the private companies or to prevent violence occurring between the company employees and the residents.

Although this demolition process, which is often accompanied by violent actions against residents, was not created by the state agents but by private agents, the state allows the violent process, leading to the violation of right to life, to continue unabated – threatening the right to life and the dignity of the residents.

In November 2008, 52 residents of Yong Gang and Ok In apartments filed an administrative litigation against the Seoul government demanding rental housing as well as moving expenses. According to the Act on the Acquisition of Land for Public Works and Compensation (revised in 2007), the court held in favor of the petitioners in July 2009 stating that the Seoul government should provide both rental housing and expenses to the residents. However, the government canceled the provision for rental housings, insisting that it was discretionary.

The government also insists that it cannot intervene in the demolition process carried out by the private sector. In a country which takes pride in its economic growth, democratic society and as a state party of International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), it is a shame to know that the government authority and public servants fail to understand human rights and their duty to protect the right to adequate housing. The government in any case, has an obligation to protect the rights that are violated by third party.

The Yongsan incident highlights the violation of the right to life of those who express their right to adequate housing with dignity (please see the details on Yongsan incident). The government has not shown any concern and responsibility to protect their rights and lives so far. The government, when announcing that Mr. Kim killed himself in despair for his poor life, denied that they infringed law, policy and even judicial conclusion.

In November 2009, in regards of the third periodic report of Republic of Korea before the UN, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had adopted concluding observations showing deep concern for forced evictions. It recommended that forced eviction be used only as a measure of last resort and that no project of development or urban renewal be carried out without prior notification and access to temporary housing for those affected, so as to avoid recourse to violence.

Despite this, the recent statements and actions of the Seoul government show the ignorance of international standards and recommendations on human rights. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) urges the Seoul government to stop the demolition until the remaining residents find alternative accommodation and further to root out the violent culture in redevelopment project, which undermines rule of law.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-253-2009
Countries : South Korea,
Issues : Land rights, Poverty & adequate standard of living,