As part of the Documentary strand of the 2017 London Korean Film Festival Lee Hyuk-sang of the activist documentary makers PINKS presented a pair of films on the Yongsan tragedy.
The context of the tragedy was the plan to redevelop the Yongsan area as the US army prepared to move to their new base in Pyeongtaek. The district, much of which was owned by Korean Rail, was slated for a 28 trillion won development project. But as with any redevelopment, the local residents need to be encouraged to move on, and if the compensation is not sufficient, or the residents have nowhere else to go, that is where the problems begin. A group of residents who were resisting the eviction occupied a small building called Namildang, built a steel refuge on the roof as a lookout, and awaited negotiations which never happened. In the ensuing police action, during which a fire eruped, six people died.
Two Doors (두 개의 문, dirs Kim Il-rhan and Hong Ji-you, 2012) opened with footage that set out the political context: when Lee Myung-bak came to power he expressed a resolve to clamp down on protests and labour disputes on the grounds that it was costing the nation economic growth – it will be remembered that Lee’s election pledge was a 747 economy: 7% annual GDP growth, $40,000 GDP per head, and Korea to be the 7th largest economy. With the political tone set from the top, another political factor came into play: the Yongsan tragedy took place as the police chief, Kim Seok-gi, was coming to the end of his tenure: he wanted the matter knocked on the head before he moved on.
A combination of items of circumstantial evidence suggested that action against the protestors was deliberately accelerated: police allowed coaches to pass within range of the protestors, who duly pelted them with Molotov cocktails. Thus more aggressive action against the protestors was deemed appropriate and the specialist anti-terrorist squad was brought in. Their assault proceeded with indecent haste – before any proper intelligence had been gathered on the layout of the four-storey steel structure in which the protestors were taking refuge. The two-pronged assault – hired heavies climbing the Namildang building floor by floor from the street below while the special operatives launched an aerial raid on the roof from the protection of a crane-lifted shipping crate – was almost bound to end in fatalities. While the protestors feel that the cause of the fatal blaze was unproven, the fact that they were using flammable chemicals to repel the police was clearly a contributing factor, along with the presence of all the ingredients needed for the Molotov cocktails. For the documentary makers, the direct cause of the fire is less important than the overall context of the police action.
The story is told through sound recordings of the trial of the protestors, footage shot by various internet TV stations who were at the scene, and information received from police. Attitudes to the tragedy ranged from indifference (the protestors were simply holding out for more compensation money) to horror (the attitude of novelists Han Kang and Hwang Jungeun.)
For the protestors several factors pointed to irregularity in the official proceedings against them: the fact that autopsies were rushed through without any consultation with the families, and the fact that the prosecutors withheld a significant amount of evidence from the defence.
In the second movie, The Remnants (공동정범, 2017), directors Kim Il-rhan and Lee Hyuk-sang focus on the people who were inside that blue metal hut when the police attacked. They were sentenced to several years in prison, held to be guilty for the deaths of the 5 protestors and one police officer who perished in the fire. What is interesting about about the film is the way it highlights the tensions between two two groups of people involved in the protest: the Yongsan residents themselves, who were directly impacted by the redevelopment plans, and other protestors, evictees from development projects in other parts of Seoul, who were there to show solidarity. The film catches up with them after their release from prison in January 2013 (after an early amnesty) and follows them as they gradually seek reconciliation and closure, which they try to achieve by reconstructing, in microscopic detail, the last few minutes on the Namildang rooftop: for them, it is important to confirm who it was that climbed out of the window first.
The documentary gives us honest, sometimes highly emotional, commentary from the protestors who were directly involved in the tragedy, and presents a very human picture. The whole thing is pretty sad, made sadder by the fact that the planned development never happened – the financial crisis happened and the money and courage from the investors wasn’t there. Instead, a much cut-back development was scheduled to commence in late 2016, when the site occupied by the Namildang building was due to be incorporated into a new complex. Even though physically the site has been erased, the wounds the eviction caused have been memorialised in these (and other) documentaries, and in the literary fiction it has inspired.