Police reform starts with apology

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Police reform starts with apology


Lee Chul-sung, commissioner general of the National Police Agency, bows in apology for the death of farmer Baek Nam-gi at the launching of the police reform committee on Friday. [YONHAP]

The national police commissioner general officially apologized for the first time on Friday for the death of Baek Nam-gi, an elderly farmer who was hit by a police water cannon during an anti-government rally in November 2015.

“On this occasion, I would like to offer my deepest condolences and sincere apology to the late Baek Nam-gi, who passed away in the process of democratization due to police, and his bereaved family,” said National Police Agency Commissioner General Lee Chul-sung, bowing his head deeply, during the opening ceremony of a police reform commission.

The apology comes a day after the Seoul National University Hospital confirmed on Thursday that Baek Nam-gi’s death was due to an external injury, sustained when he was hit by the water cannon, revising its position nine months earlier that it was natural and caused by illness.

This also marks the first time the police agency has stated its official position on the death of the farmer activist, who died on Sept. 25 after remaining comatose for 317 days at Seoul National University Hospital.

The Seoul National University Hospital doctor who treated Baek had written on his death certificate that the farmer died of cardiopulmonary arrest, categorizing it as a natural death. The victim’s family urged the hospital to change the certificate, saying Baek clearly died from the water cannon’s impact, but the doctor refused to do so.

Baek’s family members suggested the hospital’s report was influenced by local authorities, who did not want to admit guilt.

On Thursday, Kim Yeon-soo, a vice-president of the hospital, expressed his sincere apology to Baek’s family. “We are sincerely sorry and apologize for causing anxiety to the people for nearly a year.”

The revision of the cause of death came after the hospital conducted a “detailed internal review,” according to Kim, who acknowledged the faulty diagnosis but denied any political interference. The initial doctor who treated Baek was said to continue to adhere to his initial diagnosis.

The hospital said it will correct the death certificate.

Likewise, the police commissioner general on Friday, one year and 7 months after Baek was struck down by the water cannon, emphasized that police need to work to prevent any repeat incidents.

Lee said police authorities should “guarantee safety of the people under any circumstance” and that “there should never be a repetition of police excessively exerting their authority and harming the people.”

Lee added that in the future, police will not dispatch water cannons to the site of regular rallies, adding that conditions for their use would be restricted as strictly as possible.

His daughter, Baek Doraji, told JTBC Thursday that a true apology would not be not just words, but a statement by police “clarifying how it would prevent repeat cases in the future.”

In May last year, Baek’s family filed a damage suit against former top police officials and doctors.

Seoul National University Hospital underwent a review in January of the cause of Baek’s death after his family took legal measures to clarify the case.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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