[Viewpoint] The beguiling shadow of death

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[Viewpoint] The beguiling shadow of death

Koreans have a solemn - or even reverent - attitude about death. Death ends all controversies. All wrongdoing is interred with the departed, and only successes are remembered.

This is particularly true of suicides. Koreans pity those who choose to end their own lives, and remembering their faults or wrongdoings is considered an insult to the deceased. Prosecutors who investigated former President Roh Moo-hyun were accused of driving him to commit suicide.

After the suicide of former Daewoo Engineering and Construction President Nam Sang-kook, the people forgot Nam’s alleged lobbying to save his job, and chose to remember him as a businessman who was “falsely” dishonored.

The people who lost their lives in the fight against the authoritarian governments of the past were called “patriotic martyrs for democracy,” suggesting that they gave their lives voluntarily because of their beliefs. Some TV melodramas have been criticized for glorifying suicide. They may have been a factor in Korea having the highest suicide rate among OECD countries - 2.5 times higher than the OECD average. Suicide is the fourth most common cause of death in Korea.

We need to be more cool-headed about death, particularly suicide, as overly emotional attitudes can trigger reckless deaths. Because death is such a solemn matter, we tend to feel intimidated by those who act desperately. That may be why everyone acts like everything in life is a life-or-death situation.

With such people, reasonable discourse becomes impossible, and every confrontation becomes a game of Russian roulette. There is no tolerance, dialogue or compromise. Kim Jin-suk, who has been staging a protest in support of striking shipyard workers on top of a crane in Yeongdo District, Busan, is a typical example. She climbed up a 35 meter (115 feet) crane tower on a cold, windy day and has remained there for more than 200 days. The tiny space where she exists is a burning metal plate in the summer. There is no place to shelter herself from rain. She is using a plastic bag as a toilet.

By staying up there for nearly seven months, this woman in her 50s is on the threshold of life and death. Because of her, the strike at Hanjin Heavy Industries has become a national issue. Now, Kim should come down. She has achieved more than enough already.

The crane Kim chose is where Kim Ju-ik, a former labor union boss at Hanjin Heavy Industries, hung himself during a strike in 2003. It is a place where death’s shadow has been cast.

The power of Twitter and the “Hope Bus” phenomenon added momentum to the strike in Busan. On June 11, 700 protesters boarded the Hope Bus for the first time to support Kim Jin-suk’s protest, and another 10,000 participated in a Hope Bus event on July 9. And another Hope Bus event is planned for July 30.

The political legitimacy of opposition party leaders now rides on whether they rode the Hope Bus. And yet, Sohn Hak-kyu, chairman of the Democratic, made a bold decision to not board the bus to maintain his neutrality.

The strike at the Hanjin Heavy Industries began in 2008 when the shipbuilding industry faced hardship due to the global financial crisis. Hanjin failed to win any new orders for three years. In 2009, the company let go of 356 employees by accepting voluntary retirement. Last year, it laid off 400 workers in the shipyard. The labor union began a general strike on Dec. 20.

While the union and the company were negotiating on the amount of compensation to pay laid off workers, Kim climbed up the crane on Jan. 6. On June 27, the union and the management finally struck a deal, but Kim is refusing to accept it and continues her lonely fight.

The issue is between the labor union and management of Hanjin Heavy Industries. Kim is actually a senior member of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions’ Busan chapter. She first joined Korea Shipbuilding and Engineering, Hanjin’s predecessor, as a welder in 1981, but was fired in 1985. Strictly speaking, she is an outsider.

It’s been more than a month since the union and the company agreed to end the strike. Kim must not ignore the voices of 1,400 Hanjin workers who want to work to save the company. She seems to only listen to the blaring horn of the Hope Bus. She should listen to the complaints of Busan citizens, tired of all the demonstrations and the disorder they bring.

It is a serious issue whether a company can survive without layoffs. If the company ultimately goes out of business because it refused to lay off workers and make its operations profitable, who would take the responsibility?

Of course, Cho Nam-ho, chairman of Hanjin Heavy Industries, is irresponsible for leaving the country and ignoring the situation.

But the Hope Bus’ next stop should be at the National Assembly. If the law cannot resolve a problem, it is the politicians’ job to revise the law so it can.

*The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jin-kook
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