Yongsan investigation closing in on reported protest leader
The nation’s prosecutors are after the leader of a nationwide organization of squatters and evictees. The search marks an expanded investigation into the violent confrontation between police and squatters that led to six deaths on Tuesday. Testimonies say Nam Gyeong-nam masterminded the protest.
According to investigators from the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, Nam, head of the Jeoncheolyeon, or National Alliance of Squatters and Evictees, personally led the protesters’ illegal occupation of the Namildang building in Yongsan, central Seoul, on Monday. Protesters taken from the building on Tuesday after police SWAT teams moved in to remove them told the prosecution about Nam’s involvement, the sources said.
Quoting arrested protesters, the prosecution said Nam recruited 40 Jeoncheolyeon members from around the nation on Friday and mapped out a plan to seize the building, along with 10 people from the committee of Yongsan development zone evictees. Nam assigned the 50 men specific roles such as infiltrating the rooftop and building a watchtower.
Nam and his organization collected about 60 million won ($43,181) from six evictees in Yongsan to arm the protesters with flammable materials such as Molotov cocktails. The prosecution said Jeoncheolyeon also trained Yongsan squatters to occupy the building.
According to prosecutors, the protestors’ first attempt took place on Sunday under Nam’s instruction, but failed. The 50-member team launched the second attempt on Monday.
The prosecution has obtained an arrest warrant for Nam and is searching for him.
The 55-year-old Nam is a hard-line anti-poverty activist. He joined the movement to support eviction victims in 1991 and joined Jeoncheolyeon in 1993 as a founding member. He gained power in the group after purging the organization’s initial leader in 1994 by pushing forward his hard-line policies. Under Nam’s leadership, the group has increasingly resorted to violence at construction sites to demand higher compensation for development projects.
Since 2003, Nam has been wanted by the police for allegedly throwing Molotov cocktails at the Goyang Police Station in Gyeonggi. A prosecution source criticized the Roh Moo-hyun administration for failing to take action against Nam, saying it indicated a lukewarm approach to protestors. “The police probably were not determined to hunt Nam down until now,” the prosecutor said.
Nam managed to escape arrest on Tuesday, but he met with Roh Hoe-chan, a co-chairman of the New Progressive Party, on Thursday to defend protesters’ use of makeshift bombs. Nam criticized the police’s excessive use of force during the operation to remove them from the building.
Jeoncheolyeon joined the Korean People’s Solidarity, an alliance of student activist and labor activist groups in March 2002, believing eviction for a development project is an issue of social class in Korea. In addition to its headquarters, Jeoncheolyeon has four main offices in Seoul, Gyeonggi, Incheon and Busan. The organization said it has about 20,000 members, of which investigative authorities say about 500 are active.
Police said three of the five protesters who died in Tuesday’s fire were Jeoncheolyeon members, as are three of the five people the prosecution detained Thursday night for investigation. Jeoncheolyeon said it supported the protest because the Yongsan evictees’ committee is a member of its organization.
Prosecutors also plan to summon Senior Superintendent General Kim Su-jeong of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency and other senior officers who commanded the SWAT teams’ operation on Tuesday and question them about whether they followed the operations manual. “We cannot press charges against the police just because they did not operate by the book,” said Jeong Byeong-du, a senior prosecutor who is in charge of the investigation. “But if that caused this tragedy, it’s a different story.”
After the prosecution singled Nam out as the protest’s mastermind, an alliance of civic groups, political parties and Jeoncheolyeon held a press conference to condemn what they called a “witch hunt.”
Park Lae-gun, head of the civic groups’ alliance, said the evictees were victims and to call them suspects was unfair.
“No scientific conclusion was made about the actual cause of the fire, but prosecutors just say Molotov cocktails were the reason,” said Seong Nak-gyeong, secretary-general of Jeoncheolyeon. “We cannot accept the investigation outcome.”
The alliance said it will hold a protest over the Lunar New Year holiday at the fire site, demanding Seoul Police Chief Kim Seok-ki and Government Administration Minister Won Sei-hoon be fired. A candlelight vigil was planned for last night at Seoul Station and another is planned at Cheonggye Plaza on Jan. 31.
By Ser Myo-ja Staff Reporter/ Lee Chul-jae JoongAng Ilbo [email@example.com]