UPDATE: A portion of this blog was updated to reflect corrected translations regarding statements made by Shin Yeon Hee as well as correct her title to “Mayor”.
Chaos broke out on the infamous streets of Gangnam last Monday as hired “city workers” made their way down the sidewalks, evicting street vendors for establishing their stalls illegally. When faced with the word eviction, one usually brings to mind the distribution of notices and fines. Korea, however, is no stranger to the use of more unconventional methods.
Shocking pictures and videos have flooded the internet in regards to this recent outbreak. In the videos, a mob of gangsters can be seen physically harassing the street vendors and flipping over their stalls. Not only do they flip the stalls over, but tear them apart beyond repair using hammers and bolt cutters.
Generally, the owners of these stalls tend to be old men and women which we refer to as ajummas (아줌마) and ajussis (아저씨). The sight of their distress caused a great deal of shock to the numerous onlookers, many of which were pleading with the police to step in and stop the gangsters. Regardless of age, however, the vendors did their best to defend not only their own stalls, but the stalls of neighboring vendors. Unfortunately, the struggle did not end until every stall was “evicted,” leaving several distraught vendors in the street grieving the loss of their livelihood.
According to statements made by the Gangnam District Mayor, Shin Yeon-hee, these actions were necessary in taking steps to make “Seoul Gangnam into a globally recognized area”. After taking office in 2010, she has been waging war not only on nighttime stalls but also prostitution and other illegal activities. She went further to state that these stands needed to be “eradicated” not only for representing a but “decadent and morally bankrupt nightlife”, but also in order to increase tourism to the area.
It has been against the law to set up stalls, tents and booths on the streets since 2011. To enforce this law, the district office hired “temporary service workers” (용역직원). These temps arrived on buses, held no identification and were given free reign as police officers watched. With the clear presence of police officers in these videos, you may be wondering why nothing was done to stop this. The answer is simple actually, these men were hired gangsters following the orders of the local city officials.
While you may think this to be the ground floor for upcoming protests, that simply isn’t the case. The use of hired gangsters to put down protests, assault labor unions, and even assault members of Parliament in Korea has a long colorful history. This may be the most recent use of such measures by the Korean government but in truth it happens quite often. In Korea it is not uncommon for district offices and even the government to turn to “Errand Centers” (심부름센터) which are well known for lending out gangsters for hire, to clear out undesired businesses. Larger companies in Korea (in some cases known as “chaebols,” 재벌) have been known to hire them for personal and official use (most notably the chairman of Hanhwa, the 9th largest company in Korea).
Sympathy for the shopkeepers is abundant but it’s not difficult to see that agendas are being pushed or pursued. The President herself has taken a hardline against the underground economy here with claims that up to 24% of the nation’s GDP is lost due to unpaid taxes. It’s hard to believe that these shops sell that much snack food not to mention the fact that the figure has little truth behind it.
Reactions are varied but the reasoning behind these moves (this is not the first occurrence) is clear. First to clean up Korea’s image and secondly to scapegoat out smaller business owners. With street food being a large drawing point for tourists and no one being a fan of harassment (especially of the elderly), one has to wonder if any of this is actually helping Korea’s image.
NOTICE: Hello everyone! I would just like to thank you all for your feedback and comments. If any of you have any additional information relevant to this subject, please cite/source your information with reputable sources and I’ll update this post as soon as I can. Thanks for dropping by.