Home > Human Rights Defenders > Park Rae-gun, and His Noble Fight for Justice and Human Rights: “Human rights movement is my life and fate… “

Park Rae-gun, and His Noble Fight for Justice and Human Rights: “Human rights movement is my life and fate… “

[Interview]

Park Rae-gun, co-president of Justice for Yongsan Evictees and permanent activist of Sarangbang Group for Human Rights, has been a leader and beacon for human rights activists for over 23 years. Devoting his entire life to human rights, he has always fought for the disadvantaged and marginalized people in South Korea. After being linked with an illegal rally in the Yongsan 4th redevelopment region in September 2009, he turned himself in to the police on January 11, 2010, and was acquitted after four months in jail. We at the Human Rights Monitor requested Park rae-gun, for an interview to express his opinions on the high court’s recent decision on the Yongsan protesters.

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Why help find justice for the victims of the “Yongsan Tragedy”?

The “Yongsan Tragedy” was a major catastrophe that resulted in many injuries and 6 deaths. In a human rights perspective it was not just an accident, but a stark violation of civil rights. As a human rights activist I was naturally drawn to this issue which dealt with the right to housing, forced eviction, and police brutality.

What is your opinion on the heavy sentencing and on the “New Town” policy?

In a causal relationship, it was an excessive crackdown. Although deaths and injuries were predictable at the time, the police forcibly rushed in without any precautionary measures. In the trial, the court ruled in favor of the government by adopting only portions of victims’ testimonies that could be favorable for their position. Therefore, the court’s ruling was clearly biased and ignored the evictees’ suffering. It was a political decision which violated the basis of law, justice and conscience.

The “New Town” policy can be seen as necessary to a certain extent. For instance, shabby houses and narrow streets are definitely creating inconvenient living conditions for residents. However, prior to the redevelopment plan, its purpose should have been aimed at providing a better living environment for residents. In my understanding, less than 20 percent of tenants and business owners were able to resettle while 80+ percent were forced out of their homes and businesses.

Although many people sympathize with the victims of the “Yongsan Tragedy,” the victims do not actively fight for their rights as they desire to receive the benefits given through redevelopment.  Therefore, many perceive this issue as a double standard. However, people must acknowledge that their indifference intensifies the polarization of society. Living is not just limited to housing; it also incorporates aspects of education and life itself, therefore, the “New Town” policy needs to be reevaluated and adjusted. It must ensure that the residents can resettle and enjoy the better living conditions offered.

What of the rights of evictees?

Many people do not realize the truth and often are given distorted facts. Currently, under the law, evicted small business owners are guaranteed compensation only equivalent to their original four-month income. This is unfair however, as these business owners have invested a lot more money in their businesses’ premiums, interior design and employee wages. Therefore, if the government forcibly evicts them without sufficient compensation these owners cannot make ends meet. This is why evictees chose to resist with violence.

In reality, construction companies often purchase ‘demolition gangsters’ to forcibly evict tenants and business owners. In the process, these gangsters use violence, threats, commit acts of vandalism and create as much chaos as possible.

As you can see it’s a catch 22 situation, either suffer from the violence and vandalism of thugs, or suffer under unjust government authority. As such, it is difficult for evictees to claim their rights and receive justice. In the case of the “Yongsan tragedy”, Molotov cocktails and golf-balls were a last resort in a bid to fight injustice. If anyone witnessed the actual scene, they could easily understand the severity of the situation. It was truly horrifying.

What is a possible solution for the next victims of forced eviction?

The purpose of the “New Town” policy in Korea is aimed at supporting real estate, preventing economic stagnation and maximizing the benefits of construction companies. Unfortunately this policy does not mention any improvement of living conditions for residents.

Instead of pushing its policy by force, the government should institute a channel to hold sufficient discussions with residents for drafting a fairer redevelopment project. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that indigenous tenants resettle in an equivalent or better living arrangement.

The UN consistently urges the government to ban forced eviction. However, the government has completely ignored the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) and their recommendations and general comments. Our government should at least acknowledge the importance of the UN recommendations and draft a law to prohibit forced eviction. Violence will only beget more violence.

How is life as a human rights activist?

It is painful. Sometimes it gets so painful that I don’t feel like meeting victims of human rights abuses, but I know that I cannot do such a thing. Every time my heart acts before I have second thoughts, because of this I have spent my fair share in a prison cell.

Human rights work is my life and destiny. I work in the human rights movement because my heart does not let me look away from the pain of the disenfranchised. I do not always relish my job, but someone has to do it and do it right. Nevertheless, it is definitely a rewarding job.

Are there any big plans for the future?

Because I have been in and out of prison for so long, I am resting for now. As a permanent activist in the Sarangbang Group for Human Rights, I have been supporting other human rights organization since July. However, due to the lack of financial resources, things are not panning out as well as they should. As such, this year I will be focusing on establishing a foundation for financial resources to establish necessities like a human rights center which other organizations can utilize. ■

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