a10 – The struggle for the alleys of Seoul – drinking beer at the protest

By Ana

I woke up at around 7 a.m. on April 21, 2022, to a flurry of desperate, messages and photos sent frantically to a Korean group chat. They all meant one thing: yongyeok, a large company of hired goons, colloquially referred to as yongyeok gangpae (gangsters), had descended on a place that I had come to love. This was the long expected sixth and final forced eviction attempt of Eulji OB Bear, the original draft beer pub of Seoul, South Korea.

The eviction and franchise pub takeover of Eulji OB Bear represents the beginning and the end of Euljiro Nogari Alley in central Seoul’s historic Euljiro 3-ga neighborhood, which along with much of the city is undergoing rapid jaegaebal (redevelopment) and gentrification. Since opening the small, cozy pub in 1980, founder Kang Hyo-geun was committed to serving the local working-class metal shop enclave with fixed low prices. Kang created a unique culture of cold mugs of beer, served with nogari (dried pollack) grilled by hand on yeontan (coal briquettes) and dipped in the family’s special gochujang (spicy chili pepper paste) and mayo.

Korea has one of the highest rates of self-employed small business ownership in the OECD, but its laws do not provide eviction protection beyond the first few years. This is how the full-menu franchise pub Manseon Hof came in and capitalized on the growth of this so-called “Hipjiro,” gradually monopolizing the alleyway with eleven stores all under the same ownership. Still, they wanted more. Though OB Bear was willing to pay a higher rent, their landlord gave them an eviction notice. Unlike other mom-and-pop shops that are disappearing around Korea, Eulji OB Bear had extensive media coverage the support of its regulars and anti-gentrification activists, and was passed down to the second and third generations. 

Eulji OB Bear successfully resisted five forced eviction attempts that occurred between November 2020 and August 2021. From the end of September 2021 until the final eviction that April morning, I participated in a nightly volunteer rotation vigil alongside the young owner and activists. On most nights, there was live radio streamed from inside the pub with music and stories. 

By the time the older owners and others could arrive, the yongyeok had already torn up the interior and taken down the blue-and-red Eulji OB Bear sign. Several of the goons had dragged the young owner out of the shop and threw him on the pavement. The police, who don’t intervene in forced evictions, maintained their usual presence as passive bystanders. 

Rather than signaling defeat, the eviction ignited the most vivid and unforgettable part of the struggle. By that same night, the street and storage and parking area across from the pub had been transformed into a highly visible, public sustained nightly resistance. From April 21 until the last below-freezing night of November 30, a diverse mix of researchers, progressive Christians, vegan animal rights militants, musicians, artists, poets, and regular folks came together to create a peaceful yet in-your-face protest, with picketing, loud marches around the alley, prayer vigils, concerts, radio shows, DJ parties, vegan potlucks. and poetry readings, inviting passersby to join in support and buy cheap cold beer in plastic take-out OB Bear cups. 

I was a frequent participant in this legal, registered protest, standing with picket signs, and engaging with passersby who didn’t understand the situation.. Night after night, we faced down drunk bar-goers, some of whom came after us for disrupting their night out.

This is far from the first such on-site squatting-style protest in Seoul but at Eulji OB Bear, there was a particularly unique element of direct standoff with the landlord and bar patrons that had not been done before. There is no way to create change without loudly resisting the erasure of places that people in the city can call home. 

Eulji OB Bear is unable to return to Nogari Alley, now unrecognizable under the haze of construction. The owners and activists are legally fighting for a place to reopen their business while battling an obstruction of business lawsuit based on the protest, and they are using the visibility of this movement to change the tenant laws and the practice of forced evictions. The process is slow and complicated, with widespread corruption in real estate and the demolition and erasure of beloved places, replaced by tower cranes and blooming high-rise apartments. As redevelopment swallows up golmoks (alleys), the representative of a part of “old” Korea, it is the new franchises like Manseon Hof that get the payout.

As for me, a white American woman in solidarity through the chance invitation of artist activist friends, I continue to support Eulji OB Bear and other such sites of struggle with complicated, mixed feelings. On the one hand, as a former patron of the Manseon franchise and a target demographic for Korean tourist attractions, I feel a deep sense of privilege and honor at being able to participate in a visceral form of resistance. At the same time, despite living here for over a decade, speaking the language and knowing people in the movement, due to the strongly group and organization-oriented nature of Korean protests, it is not easy to avoid isolation and get to know comrades and the affected communities on a personal level. In the case of the OB Bear protest, despite it being an ostensibly open-to-all, no-barrier space, as I was almost the only non-Korean directly involved, I often couldn’t help feeling like a token “global” presence on passive display in front of passersby, sometimes inviting harassment, yet only acknowledged when needed for interpretation or a photo-op. Other times, I felt like a nuisance or burden.

When I find myself feeling disillusioned, angry, or dejected about this aspect of solidarity, I try to remember that I made the full, conscience choice to participate and that whatever inconveniences I may deal with, I am ultimately shielded from the serious legal consequences faced by many of my Korean comrades, not to mention the repeated trauma experienced by them and the evictees. Yet I don’t want to completely disregard the other issues I encounter, including a heavy reliance on social media imagery, with a creeping sense of dehumanization and depersonalization of the very real on-the-ground emotional and psychological impact of the struggle. There is also the question: who leads and represents the movement? The affected community of non-activist, older merchants and regulars? Or the new group of young, educated activist organizers? In Korea as in the US and everywhere else, I believe the struggle against the forces of capitalism and destruction for a better, more joyful existence will continue to grapple with all these contradictions. We are not perfect, but we can always keep growing.