[Editorial] After four years, Yongsan disaster is still unsolved

Posted on : 2013-01-21 14:40 KST Modified on : 2013-01-21 14:40 KST

Jan. 20 was the fourth anniversary of the Yongsan disaster. On that day, the People’s Committee for Commemorating the Fourth Anniversary of the Yongsan Disaster was established to remember the tragedy visited the gravesites of the victims at Moran Park in the city of Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province. At the cemetery, they held a service to bring peace to the troubled souls of those who passed away.

On Jan. 19, the group visited the former site of Namildang Building, where the disaster took place in 2009. They held a ceremony for the victims there. After this, they went to the plaza at Seoul Station to take part in a memorial service.

The Yongsan disaster, as it is known today, refers to a confrontation that took place at the Namildang Building on Hangang Street in the Yongsan district of Seoul. Evicted residents had seized control of the building and were holding a sit-in protest in a temporary structure on the roof. When the police attempted to break up the protest, the structure caught fire, and five of the protestors and one member of the police SWAT team died in the blaze.

Eight people were put in prison as a result of this incident. Two of them were released on parole last year, but the remaining six are still behind bars. While people continue to demand that the government find out what really happened, punish those who were responsible, release and pardon the convicted residents, and revise the law on forced eviction, four years later the wounds have yet to heal.

The awful events that took place in Yongsan were ultimately the result of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s policies that focused on redevelopment and government-sanctioned violence. When the container filled with police officers landed on the roof of the Namildang Building in the early hours of Jan. 20, 2009, the evicted residents had only been in the temporary structure for one day. It was also only two days since Kim Seok-ki had been promoted to commissioner of Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency. Facing the global financial crisis, the Lee administration rushed to engage in a variety of redevelopment projects including the so-called “new town” housing developments. Time and time again, residents were forcibly evicted from their homes.

The tragedy is still unfolding today, at least in the sense that the details of what really happened that morning have not been disclosed. While the court may have rendered its verdict, plenty of questions remain about the prosecution’s role in the indictment. Another sense in which the Yongsan disaster is continuing today is the fact that hired thugs continue to be employed in city renewal projects.

The time after an election when a new government comes to power provides us an ideal opportunity to tend to and heal the wounds suffered under the previous administration. And indeed, the Yongsan disaster is a wound that Lee allowed to fester for four long years. The residents took up their positions in the temporary shelter to protect their livelihood, but in the end some lost their lives while others have spent years in prison. Looking at the situation from the perspective of the victims and their families, we can see how a tragedy like this would drive one to despair. Of course, adding even further to the tragedy is the fact that a police officer lost his life during the crackdown on the protestors.

If president-elect Park Geun-hye hopes to unify Korean society, she must not ignore the Yongsan disaster. Of course, there are differing views in Korea today on what happened in Yongsan. But that does not excuse us from the responsibility to address the suffering of the victims. The healing process will only begin when we listen to the cries of sadness and betrayal of the victims and their families. We must listen to their stories and give serious thought to what kind of solution society can offer them. Only by doing this can we shorten the time necessary to unify Korean society.


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