Ven­dors fight to stay in Gang­nam

JoongAng Daily - - Front Page - BY KIM BONG-MOON AND AHN HYO-SUNG bong­moon@joongang.co.kr

Street ven­dors near Gang­nam Sta­tion, south­ern Seoul, found them­selves in­volved in an un­ex­pected brawl on Tues­day with about 30 con­tract em­ploy­ees from the Gang­nam Dis­trict Of­fice.

When the tem­po­rary work­ers con­fis­cated some of the mer­chants’ street stalls and placed them in the back of their truck, oth­ers came out onto the road ready to take them back at all costs.

“Hey, push them away! Take the cart!” one of the con­tract work­ers shouted.

But more than 50 street venders scram­bled to stop them by form­ing a bar­rier or throw­ing food at the dis­trict hires. The scene sur­prised passersby, and a few grabbed for their cam­eras or phones to doc­u­ment the skir­mish.

But the melee is only the lat­est in a pro­longed dis­pute be­tween the dis­trict of­fice and the Gang­nam ven­dors, who in­sist that city au­thor­i­ties are threat­en­ing their liveli­hoods. The dis­trict, on the other hand, ar­gues that the sell­ing goods on street is clearly against law and that such ac­tiv­i­ties only in­con­ve­nience pedes­tri­ans on the side­walk and add to con­ges­tion.

The con­flict has in­ten­si­fied in re­cent months as street ven­dors have set up tents and con­ducted sit-in demon­stra­tions to protest to the dis­trict of­fice’s crack­down.

Gang­nam Dis­trict Of­fice of­fi­cials have torn down the tents sev­eral times, which prompted the Korea Street Ven­dors Con­fed­er­a­tion (KSVC) to step in to pro­tect its mem­bers.

Ear­lier this month, the street ven­dors went so far as to bring a shipping con­tainer, rather than tents, to the mid­dle of Gang­nam Boule­vard. When the dis­trict of­fice tried to con­fis­cate it, dozens of mer­chants stepped in to try to stop them.

But though the ven­dors claim their jobs are be­ing jeop­ar­dized, the dis­trict of­fice al­leges that most of the stalls near Gang­nam Sta­tion aren’t owned by peo­ple who de­pend on the business. Rather, they are run like en­ter­prises, they say.

“They are not for their liveli­hoods, but for profit. Some street ven­dors own mul­ti­ple stalls in the area or their rel­a­tives have mul­ti­ple street stalls in the same area,” said Jeong Han-ho, the head of the Safety and Con­struc­tion Depart­ment in the Gang­nam Dis­trict Of­fice. “We moved all the street ven­dors to the inside of the block back in 2008, but they edged back out to the boule­vard in 2011 and shop own­ers have com­plained about it.

“We es­ti­mate that they are earn­ing about 10 mil­lion ($9,156) won a month be­cause they only ac­cept cash and don’t pay rent or taxes,” he added.

The Gang­nam Dis­trict Of­fice ul­ti­mately aims to clear the street by erad­i­cat­ing en­ter­pris­ing street mer­chants and re­lo­cat­ing those who de­pend on the business to ar­eas where they would elicit fewer com­plaints.

The street stalls con­fis­cated from Gang­nam Boule­vard by dis­trict of­fi­cials are dis­carded be­cause the area is des­ig­nated as a spe­cial main­te­nance area, while the ones taken from other lo­ca­tions are re­turned to their own­ers, who are then fined.

The KSVC, how­ever, in­sists that the dis­trict of­fice is ex­ag­ger­at­ing the sit­u­a­tion.

“We are de­mand­ing the Gang­nam Dis­trict Of­fice al­low at least 25 street stalls along the boule­vard,” said Choi Oh-su, a pub­lic re­la­tions of­fi­cial with KSVC. “It’s true that some of the street ven­dors rent out their stalls, but only when the owner can’t keep it due to health rea­sons.”

There are cur­rently about 30 street ven­dors along­side the road, and they have no in­ten­tion of giv­ing up their spot in an area with the coun­try’s big­gest float­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Gang­nam be­came the most fa­mous tourist at­trac­tion in Seoul after Psy’s hit “Gang­nam Style” went vi­ral world­wide in 2012, and with the in­flux of tourists, many street mer­chants have put up menus or signs in English, Chi­nese and Ja­panese.

Ac­cord­ing to the Gang­nam Dis­trict Of­fice, more than 5 mil­lion for­eign­ers visit Gang­nam an­nu­ally.

The ven­dors have also com­plained that the Gang­nam Dis­trict Of­fice has cracked down too hard lately as other dis­trict of­fices have sought out ways for street mer­chants and shops to co­ex­ist — an ar­gu­ment that re­flects data from the Seoul Met­ro­pol­i­tan Gov­ern­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to those fig­ures, as of June this year, there were 2,925 doc­u­mented cases in which il­le­gal street ven­dors were ap­pre­hended by au­thor­i­ties in Seoul.

Gang­nam Dis­trict ac­counted for 541 of those — the sec­ond most after Seo­cho Dis­trict, on the other side of Gang­nam-daero, which ac­counted for 761 of all cases.

To­tal doc­u­mented cases in Gang­nam have also seen a huge leap over the past three years, from 322 in 2012 to 1,111 in 2013.

But not all street ven­dors are in line with KSVC’s push against the dis­trict of­fice, and some mer­chants in the area, es­pe­cially those who don’t op­er­ate along the boule­vard, have ad­mit­ted that they feel un­com­fort­able as the con­flict grows.

Even though they aren’t di­rectly re­lated to the dis­pute, they’ve been ad­vised to at­tend the protests.

“I had to go to the protest last night and it ended this morn­ing,” one street ven­dor, who asked for anonymity, told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “The crack­down may threaten our lives and it’s un­com­fort­able when con­fed­er­a­tion mem­bers rec­om­mend I at­tend those meet­ings when I’m run­ning my stall here be­hind the main street.”

“It is im­pos­si­ble to run street stalls here with­out reg­is­ter­ing with the con­fed­er­a­tion,” another mer­chant added, “be­cause in­di­vid­ual sell­ers can’t re­sist the crack­down, and con­fed­er­a­tion mem­bers of­ten per­suade them to reg­is­ter. Ex­cept for one street ven­dor who’s been here for a long time, all the ven­dors here have regis­tered with the con­fed­er­a­tion.”

But it ap­pears the pub­lic mostly sup­ports the dis­trict of­fice, which stated that it con­tin­ues to re­ceive com­plaints not just from shop own­ers in the area, but passersby as well who feel in­con­ve­nienced.

“When I passed by a protest by the street ven­dors, I heard an of­fi­cial from the con­fed­er­a­tion telling mem­bers to pre­tend they had been beaten by dis­trict of­fice con­tract work­ers,” said a 67year-old who asked for anonymity.

“They should be gone from the road be­cause they only dis­turb peo­ple; they il­le­gally park their cars along the road, hang il­le­gal ban­ners, leave garbage, pour waste wa­ter in the drains and they dam­age the pave­ment when they nail down their tents.”

The KSVC has also tried to draw a support base, mostly by ap­peal­ing to pub­lic emo­tions.

Its mem­bers re­cently hung a banner, on which peo­ple could write sup­port­ive mes­sages, next to the shipping con­tainer. They’ve also painted the con­tainer box to make it ap­pear friend­lier to passersby — a clear sig­nal that they have no in­ten­tion of step­ping down.

Yet, ex­perts say that an easy way to solve the prob­lem would be to es­tab­lish a new reg­is­tra­tion sys­tem for street ven­dors.

“Defin­ing street stalls as il­le­gal and cracking down on them from time to time is only rous­ing the an­tipa­thy of street ven­dors,” said Cho Myung-rae, a pro­fes­sor of ur­ban and re­gional plan­ning at Dankook Univer­sity.

“It would be more ef­fec­tive if lo­cal au­thor­i­ties man­aged mer­chants by im­ple­ment­ing reg­u­la­tions for op­er­at­ing hours, the area and their prod­ucts.”

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