Don’t politicize Itaewon

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Don’t politicize Itaewon

Lee Jung-min

The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Korea remains under a pall of unfathomable sadness and sorrow from a sudden and unimaginable tragedy. With the sight of the sinking ferry with school field-trip passengers onboard still vivid in our memory, 158 lives were cut short in a downtown street in Seoul. The families and friends would be living a hell from the unforeseen loss. Others share the guilt for having failed to protect them with a safe society. No one can be entirely innocent from the stupefying deaths. Few can pass by the Itaewon district without wretchedness at heart.

Policy makers live in a different world. Their behavior hardly can be described sympathetic to the societal misery. They are entirely engrossed in evading accountability and finding scapegoats, capitalizing on sad losses for political gains. An online media outlet hastily made by a Democratic Party (DP) lawmaker and former journalist released the names of 155 who had died during the Itaewon crowd crush. The progressive Catholic Priests Association for Justice called out their names in a prayer mass. The incident stoked political wrangling over a secondary damage to the families and politicization of a national disaster.

DP Chair Lee Jae-myung defended the act, saying, “How can people pray and mourn without knowing the names or faces?” But it had been the wishes of the families to keep the names of their children anonymous. Anyone who empathizes with the sad losses could not have thought to upset the families.

We should mourn and find the exact cause of the disaster and who is responsible. But the work must not stop there. Mourning and raging does not build a safe society. Politicians must share the fault for wasting the time and resources investigating the Sewol ferry disaster over the last eight years. They must be regretful for using a tragedy for political interest.

The Sewol ferry investigation had been repeated nine times at a cost of 57.2 billion won ($42.7 million), without revealing anything new. What should have been a scientific finding did not come to a conclusion. It was wrapped up with two theories of internal and external causes. Park Sang-eun, who had been one of the investigators, said the results would have been different if the investigation focused on social structural factors rather than trying assign blame. “We should have questioned what caused the sinking, not who was at fault.”

Kim Min-woo, a lawyer who joined a special investigation and a civilian-led probe, also observed the goal was politically oriented by targeting a specific person and group from the beginning.
Democratic Party Chair Lee Jae-myung, center, and other lawmakers of the liberal party, demand a legislative probe or a special counsel investigation into the deadly crowd crush in Itaewon citing the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s inability to prevent the disaster, which took 158 lives. [NEWS1] 

The government and ruling party are condoning the mood of turning the Itaewon tragedy into another Sewol ferry debacle. Even if the accident could not have been foreseeable, their sloppy response has caused disappointment and anger. The government lacked a command center in its disaster and response manual. The police leadership was negligent, dumping the liability on lower level officers. The interior minister in charge of public safety is busy keeping to his seat.

The defense by the governing power only reminds us of the dispute over the mysterious absence of former president Park Geun-hye for 7 hours while the Sewol ferry was sinking. If social tragedy and losses are wasted by political wrangling, we may never achieve a safe society. If the goal is truly to build a reliable society, fact-finding must come first to identify the fundamental problems and determine who is responsible for the tragedy.

There are many cases to benchmark as post-disaster measures. Following the Our Lady of the Angels School fire in Chicago, Illinois, and the crowd crush in Akashi pedestrian bridge after a firework show in Japan, the countries and cities have regularized fire drills at schools and established a manual for mass crowd assemblies. They may not ensure a perfectly safe society, but they took a step toward a safer community. Losses must not go wasted.
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