Korea: City-hired ‘thugs’ forcefully evict Gangnam street vendors
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Korea: City-hired ‘thugs’ forcefully evict Gangnam street vendors

In the now world famous Gangnam District in Seoul, workers hired by the city forcefully evicted several street vendors Monday. Shocking pictures and videos online show physical exchanges between merchants and public employees, resulting in one member of each party being taken to the hospital for minor injuries.

The Gangnam District Office and local police called the incident a “special crackdown of illegal stalls” as the tents “threatened public safety” by blocking spaces made for pedestrians. Since 2011 it has been against the law to do business on the streets. The district office said it mobilized 10 civil servants and hired 40 temporary service workers for assistance.

The vendors, however, say that the public employees did not show any identification before violently flipping over food stalls, maintaining that they were simply hired thugs.

Police officers looked on throughout the incident despite merchants pleading for help.

The incident highlights an ongoing battle between the city and street vendors as Seoul strives to become a modern metropolis. This modernity is gentrifying affluent areas like Gangnam, where skyscrapers and designer shops are preferred over street stalls and vendors.

On its website, the district office said the crackdown was necessary because Gangnam gets a lot of foreign visitors. This sentiment was further echoed by the district chief, Shin Yeon-hee, who said the area needed to be “cleaned up” in order to make Gangnam more “global” and “foreigner friendly.”

However, the city also has financial motives for pursuing the eviction with street vendors estimated to make an average of 5 million won ($4690) monthly. The more successful vendors can make upward of 1 million won ($938) daily, all without paying taxes and legal property fees.

With South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s ambitions to boost the country to 4% economic growth, 70% employment and $40,000 per capita income, on top of her many welfare promises, big increases in public spending are expected – even with the growing burdens of public debt.

Since her election, President Park has been keen to tax what is considered the underground or shadow economy for extra revenue, which Park claims amounts to 24 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product – a figure contested by think tanks such as the Korea Economic Research Institute that says it ranges from 17 to 22 percent. In addition, the crackdown area is one of the most expensive retail real estate markets in the country.

Although the government says it will charge street vendors with criminal prosecutions for assaulting workers hired by the city, the public’s reaction to the incident is more sympathetic to the side of the merchants. South Korean netizens say the district office went too far, even if the vendors failed their public financial responsibilities. The city’s hired help left a lasting impression, destroying the food stalls using hammers and pliers as merchants yelled out, “We’re doing this for our livelihood.”