When South Korea previously held the Olympics in 1988, Kim Paolo and some 150 other poor urban residents spent months that year hiding in huge graves of their own making.
They were the last among thousands ousted from host city Seoul after losing years-long, pre-Olympic battles against officials, police, construction workers and hired thugs. A massive effort to beautify the capital had razed hundreds of poor neighbourhoods to make way for new high-rise buildings. In violent clashes between residents and police, several died and hundreds were injured.
In Bucheon, just west of Seoul, a trio of long pits in the ground was all the living space Kim and others could wrestle out of city officials. With help of the Roman Catholic Church and donations from well-wishers, those evicted had purchased a small, deserted piece of land that abutted a highway at the mouth of the capital.
But as soon as they set up makeshift tents in their new holes — in freezing January — Bucheon officials sent dozens of workers to tear them down.
For the city, it was crucial that the scruffy outcasts from Seoul were unseen during the Olympic torch relay, which was to briefly pass that section of the highway a week before the opening ceremony that September. South Korea touted the Seoul Summer Games as its glorious coming-out party to the world, but only after years of effort to hide its poorest citizens.
Now South Korea has completed its second Olympics, this time a Winter Games in the sleepy ski resort town of Pyeongchang. And all these years later, the thousands of people displaced from their homes in Seoul live scattered around the country, often unwilling to talk about their long-forgotten struggle because of fear of stigma or frustration.
Kim, now 61 and a taxi driver in Bucheon, remembers how aggressive it all was and how their shelters, where they crouched in cave-like sheds under layers of plastic sheeting, felt like the places they would go to die.
“Holes,” he said, “were the only homes they couldn’t break up.”
The idea of a real home felt remote for Kim, whose family, including his mother and two siblings, was among the thousands displaced from Sanggyedong, a northern Seoul neighbourhood that came under a yearlong destruction campaign beginning in 1986.
The military dictatorship was pushing such redevelopment in the 1980s as it prepared to bid for and then host the Olympics out of desire to gain political legitimacy nationally and internationally.
There’s no reliable government figure capturing the scale of the house clearings and evictions. But a 1989 report from Seoul National University estimates that 48,000 buildings housing 720,000 people were destroyed during the five years preceding the Seoul Games.
Military leaders saw the massive house clearings as crucial for beautifying the city for foreign visitors. They were also motivated by the potential profit from replacing slums on state-controlled land with large and expensive apartment units that could be sold to the expanding middle class and wealthy, according to experts and former officials.
The whirlwind of evictions, demolitions and rebuilding left an impact that endures to this day: an overdeveloped megalopolis that still deals with severe shortages in affordable housing despite its thick forests of towering apartments; rising household debt mainly blamed on excessive housing; and the use of violence and professional thugs, who continue to be legally accepted at redevelopment sites.
Former resident Kim Jin-hong, who sold vegetables at a cart to support his wife and three children, remembers the excavators that rolled up the hills of 173rd Street on the morning of June 26, 1986. There were at least four, each coming from the north, south, east and west.
Accompanying the machines were about 500 riot police officers in their Darth Vader helmets and private enforcers hired by construction companies, wearing red baseball caps and sneakers and carrying sledgehammers and pieces of lumber.
The demolition was brutal and highly orchestrated.
According to witnesses, activists and media reports, thugs violently dragged people out of their tiny matchbox houses. Children were snatched from their mothers and thrown to the ground. Women were harassed or sexually threatened. Residents’ most valuable belongings were destroyed to break their will to fight.
After that dirty work, police officers used their long metal shields to tightly surround the blocks of houses that construction workers planned to demolish. Residents yelled and hurled rocks toward the shields as the thugs, construction workers and excavators began smashing the houses. They were powerless to stop the destruction, which was complete by early evening.
One 59-year-old man was killed after being crushed by wreckage. At least 41 others were treated for injuries. Police detained 60 residents for protesting.
Activists say there were at least 18 demolitions at Sanggyedong between June 1986 and April 1987. Injuries piled up from the clashes. Residents’ leaders who drove the protests were repeatedly arrested for weeks and months. To further intimidate the residents, thugs came at night with knives and sickles and ripped the tents of evicted families who remained on site opposing redevelopment.
The events of 1986 were “like a war,” says Kim Jin-hong, 71, who still sells vegetables in a market in the Banghakdong section of Seoul.
Most who protested couldn’t leave Sanggyedong if they wanted to, said Yu Kyung-jae, a 66-year-old former resident. Many of them, like Yu, relied on day-to-day jobs at construction sites or factories that required them to stay close to Seoul’s downtown core. It wasn’t easy to move to nearby neighbourhoods; rents in surrounding areas soared with redevelopment.
The demolition was completed in April 1987, when some 3,000 police officers and private enforcers forcibly removed the remaining residents from Sanggyedong. By then, there were only 73 families left. The constant fear of violence, injury and possible death was unbearable to many.
The remaining residents moved into to tents near Seoul’s Myeongdong Cathedral, the epicenter of growing democracy protests by blue-collar workers and students that would eventually force Seoul’s military regime to accept free presidential elections in June 1987.
Tragedy continued. Nine-year-old Oh Dong-geun, among the many children who commuted by subway to their Sanggyedong elementary school, was killed in May 1987 when a wall collapsed while he was playing on the ruins of his old neighbourhood.
Protesters had planned Oh’s wake as a march around the redevelopment site. But police sent hundreds of officers to a hospital at night and fought through dozens of protesters to snatch Oh’s body from the morgue.
He was cremated the next day.
Preparations for the 1988 Olympics, pushed by the government of dictator Chun Doo-hwan, essentially shaped Seoul into the modern city it is today.
A massive sports complex and huge public parks emerged alongside the city’s Han River. New highways, bridges and subway lines were built. The major downtown districts around City Hall were remade with broader streets and huge concrete buildings that rose above the rubble of old shops and offices.
But the biggest concern for the government was the hundreds of slums that had sprouted around Seoul over the previous decades of rapid industrialization that converted millions of farmers and their children to low-wage urban factory workers.
By the 1980s, these “cardboard villages” — which stood out for their dense rows of monotonous matchbox houses made of wood scraps, concrete blocks and thin slate roofs — occupied virtually every available piece of public land on hillsides or near water sources within the city’s boundaries. Seoul had more than 150,000 of these “substandard” houses at the end of 1980, according to government records.
Around 1,500 were in Sanggyedong’s shantytown, created in the 1960s when scores of poor urban residents were relocated there from the city’s central areas when they were redeveloped under late President Park Chung-hee, the military dictator who preceded Chun.
The houses, originally built with government assistance, were all alike. Each had one room of about 9 square meters (100 square feet), barely enough to fit two beds, although residents almost never had such furniture. There was also a smaller kitchen area with an unpaved floor.
By the 1980s, most of the original inhabitants had moved out and were replaced by another generation of urban poor. They slept on roofs in the summer and burned wood or coal to keep warm in the winter. They formed long lines to use the small number of toilets in the back of narrow alleys between the houses. They shared public water faucets and basins in courtyards.
Despite the inconveniences, people stayed in Sanggyedong because of cheap rents and the proximity to downtown. For men relying on unskilled temporary work at construction sites or factories, it helped to live in a crowded neighbourhood where information about jobs travelled fast. Women worked as cleaners or were paid by nearby factories to sew buttons on stuffed animals.
“To poor people, neighbours are their wealth,” said Son In-sook, 78, a Catholic nun who lived in Sanggyedong for most of the 1980s and became involved in the residents’ struggle against forced evictions.
“They lived with unlocked doors. They fed and took care of other people’s children until their parents returned from work,” Son said. “A good soup with meat often became thin and bland because they added more water to share it with others. It was hard not to do that — everyone was living so close they could smell the soup.”
Concern over housing optics was mainly what drove city officials to express strong opposition when the national government began discussing whether to bid for the Olympics in late 1980 — a rare move under dictatorship, according to the late Son Jung-mok, Seoul’s former urban planning director who wrote about the discussions in a 2003 memoir. But Chun pushed ahead, accusing skeptics of “defeatism,” according to a 1990 government white paper documenting the Olympic preparations.
Experts say Chun’s regime at the time was desperately trying to divert public attention from politics following its bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests in May 1980 that left hundreds dead in the southern city of Gwangju. The Olympics would also give a crown jewel to Chun’s so-called “3S policy” for relaxing restrictions and promoting “sports, sex and screen.” The early 1980s was also when the country launched its pro baseball league and local movies began to show explicit sex scenes.
Seoul was picked as the host for the 1988 Olympics in October 1981. The house clearings followed not long after.
The last 73 families at Myeongdong Cathedral eventually split. Oh’s death was a traumatic experience. There were also conflicts over what to do with the donations and loans from religious groups and the public that grew during their exposure to the wider democracy movement at the cathedral.
In January 1988, 39 families moved to a deserted orchard east of Seoul. The other 34 households, including Kim Paolo’s, headed for Bucheon, where they immediately clashed with the city government.
It wasn’t until late summer 1988, Kim recalls, that Bucheon officials permitted evictees to build simple concrete homes at the site — but not before the Olympics ended. The evictees were allowed to temporarily live in wooden shacks dug into an embankment on nearby state-owned land, a location less likely to be seen from the highway.
Park Gyeong-shik, an official from Bucheon, said the city is unable to accurately confirm the details of Kim’s story after 30 years. He didn’t dispute it, though.
“Those were totally different times when all power was concentrated in the national government and cities had to directly follow its command,” Park said. “You know how serious the government was about prettifying the urban environment.”
The Bucheon homes are gone today. Residents left one by one.
Ultra-modern Seoul no longer has massive slums like the one that used to define Sanggyedong. The city still has poor people — and many of them. But they are mostly invisible, wandering between tiny flop houses, 24-hour saunas or cheap motels in their deeply isolated struggles to survive. Figures show South Korea has one of the worst rich-poor gaps among developed economies. It has the highest suicide rate by far.
“Poor people no longer have social connections,” said Choi In-gi, a poverty rights activist. “It’s harder when everything’s entirely on the individual. The mental stress is greater.”
The country continues to mismanage conflicts over forced evictions. In 2009, six people died when a fire broke out as police suppressed evictees who had occupied a building set for redevelopment. In 2016, about 30 people were injured when thugs hired by developers beat evictees during a clearance. Critics want private enforcers prohibited at redevelopment sites and evictions banned during winter. Neither has happened yet.
Kim said he never saw the Olympic torch relay that passed the Bucheon site on Sept. 10, 1988. “Why would I?” he said.
He didn’t care much about the country’s second Olympics either.
“It’s just that not much has changed for poor people,” he said. “They still can’t get a decent place to live.”
Kim Tong-hyung, a Seoul-based correspondent for The Associated Press, just completed an assignment covering the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang.
Kim Tong-Hyung, The Associated Press