Don’t blame the Sri LankanLEE KYONG-HEE
The author is a deputy editor of the digital content lab of the JoongAng Ilbo.
On the morning of Oct. 7, a 27-year-old Sri Lankan construction worker found a sky lantern at a tunnel construction site. Two of the 80 lanterns that were lit at a Fathers’ Camp at a nearby elementary school on the previous day landed on the construction site. He was taking a break at 10:32 am, and found the lantern and lit it. The lantern was blown away immediately. It was a brief break during his work, so he had to go back to the site.
He entered the country with an E-9 non-professional working visa, which allows workers to have unskilled labor jobs at small companies with fewer than 300 employees. The Ministry of Justice gives the visas to people from 16 countries with agreements, including Sri Lanka. Once visa holders are employed, they cannot move to another workplace, with the exception of extreme cases such as business closures. It is easier to extend the visa by working for the same company for a long time. As the Sri Lankan worker’s fate depended on his company, he naturally worked over the weekend.
The sky lantern, also known as the Kongming lantern, originates from a Chinese story where Zhuge Liang calculated the direction of the wind and used lanterns to ask for help. Today, they are released to make wishes and pray for good fortune. The sky lantern contained the wishes of some elementary school students and their fathers as well as the Sri Lankan man’s wish. It just happened to fall on the grass next to Daehan Oil Pipeline Corporation’s gasoline tanks in Goyang, Gyeonggi.
The flame spread on the grass and to the vent, and the oil tank exploded at 10:54 am. No one realized that the fire was spreading before then. There were no fire detectors or sensor. For 17 hours, 2.263 million liters of gasoline burned. The incident revealed that it would only takes a few sky lanterns, not a nuclear missile or long-range artillery, to paralyze Korea.
The police moved quickly. Nearby CCTV footage was reviewed, and the Sri Lankan worker was found. At 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 8, he was arrested without a warrant for charges of misdemeanor arson. According to the Criminal Law, emergency arrest without a warrant can be made “where a probable reason exists to suspect that any criminal suspect committed crimes punishable by the death penalty, imprisonment with labor for an indefinite term, or imprisonment, with or without labor, for not less than three years” and “the criminal suspect is likely to destroy evidence and/or escape.” The sentence for misdemeanor arson is up to three years of imprisonment or a fine of less than 20 million won ($17,467). The police must have been certain that the Sri Lankan laborer had committed such a crime.
Would he be treated the same way if he were a Korean or a citizen of a developed country? The sky lanterns released at the Fathers’ Camp landed on the construction site instead of the oil storage facility — not because they calculated like Zhuge Liang but by chance. Do not encourage prejudice and hatred of people from the developing world, which conceals the need for greater accountability of the state and the system. Perhaps this man deserves decoration for reminding us of Korea’s vulnerable system.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 11, Page 30