What They Said is a weekly series on the quotes behind the headlines.
On December 10, 42 days after the Itaewon tragedy, which claimed the lives of 158 people and injured 196, the families of the victims established a council and held a press conference to read the inaugural declaration.
“Following the October 29 Itaewon tragedy, we the families of the victims express our anger and sorrow at the unjust deaths of our family members and at the government’s lukewarm response to the tragedy. We have established the Council for the Families of the October 29 Itaewon Tragedy to restore the honor of the victims, mourn them, and thoroughly and clearly investigate the truth and hold those responsible accountable, and we declare as follows:
1. We will do everything in our power to uncover the truth about the unjust deaths of the victims, whose lives ended when they encountered unexpected danger while going about their daily lives. The government should be held accountable for causing numerous casualties by not taking any precautions, even though a huge crowd was anticipated, ignoring the voices of the victims asking for help, and failing to properly handle the situation after the tragedy occurred. The government must be held accountable for neglecting its responsibility and duty to protect the people’s lives and property.
2. We urge the government to act to its full administrative capacity to uncover the truth about the 10.29 Itaewon tragedy, and we insist that the truth about that day should be investigated through a thorough government investigation without political disputes or sanctuary. In addition, a harsh punishment should be given to those responsible for the serious failure to protect the lives of the people, in order that they feel their responsibility and the gravity of their posts, and concrete measures must be implemented to prevent such a disaster from occuring again.
3. We urge the government to do its best to create a space for the families of the October 29 Itaewon tragedy victims to communicate with each other and a space to mourn the victims and their unjust deaths. We declare that we will not keep silent about any suspicious attempts to obstruct the activities of the Council of the Families. Mourning is the right of families who have lost their loved ones, and true mourning should be accompanied by a promise that the same tragedy will not happen again.
4. We are enraged by the absurd stigma attached to the victims who suffered unjust deaths, and we will actively deal with all secondary victimization that occurs from this point without leniency, and we issue a grave warning that those responsible for such inhumane and anti-social activities will be held accountable.
5. Remembering the sacrifice of the October 29 Itaewon tragedy, we will deeply etch in our minds the responsibilities and duties the state must fulfill to the people. We the families of the victims promise to act in concert to prevent such a tragedy from happening again in this country.”
— Council of the Families of the October 29 Itaewon Tragedy Victims, December 10, 2022
Not everyone in the political arena welcomed the news of the founding of the council. Kweon Seong-dong, a member of the National Assembly and the floor leader of the People Power Party, wrote a long post on Facebook about his concerns that the council might be taken advantage of for political purposes, claiming that a civic group founded for the victims of the Sewol ferry tragedy had been used as a means to embezzle funds:
“I have heard that the council of the families of the victims of the Itaewon crowd crush incident will be launched on December 10. The council took its first step through MINBYUN-Lawyers for a Democratic Society on November 15 and has been working in the form of a preparatory meeting.
Meanwhile, the Citizens Response Measure Meeting for the October 29 Itaewon Tragedy announced its launch as well. Groups such as People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions participated in its founding. The Citizens Response Measure Meeting says that they will commemorate the Itaewon tragedy and mourn its victims, establish support measures, preserve commemoration records, etc. To this end, it seems that they will communicate various demands to the government.
After the Itaewon incident, the government announced a week of mourning and provided measures, such as funding for funerals, to the victims’ families. In addition, the investigation to uncover the truth about the incident is ongoing. The government and the victims’ families can continue their discussions regarding the kind of support they need going forward.
However, this method of civic groups organizing and unifying to put pressure on the government must be avoided. Because there is a risk of the Itaewon incident being consumed in political disputes and abused as a means for civic groups to embezzle money, as in the case of the Sewol ferry tragedy. …
After the Sewol ferry incident, numerous programs and spaces for mourning and commemoration were created. But did they contribute to making our society safer? They did not. In fact, the number of accidents at sea did not decrease. Moreover, there were cases in which civic groups used the incident for political and financial gain.
We need to be mature in the face of disasters. We need to go beyond mourning to prevention, beyond political conflicts to the improvement of the system. The Itaewon incident should not go down the same path the Sewol ferry incident did.”
— Kweon Seong-dong, floor leader of the People Power Party, December 10, 2022
The council’s deputy representative Lee Jeong-min, who is also the father of one of the victims, angrily responded to Kweon’s statement:
“What kind of path did the Sewol ferry go down? What kind of path is it that you’re telling us we shouldn’t take? We don’t know what path that is. Are the families of the Sewol ferry tragedy victims anti-government forces? Are we anti-government forces? The families of the Sewol ferry victims also lost their children and in their grief and sorrow asked the government to resolve many issues around the disaster, and we’re the same. But did the government reach out to us? Did we do this from the beginning? We don’t know why we have to come up with a solution on our own like this. Why do we have to do that? Were our initial requests so hard and difficult to grant? If [those responsible] had gathered all of the victims’ families together in one place and made a sincere apology as the people in charge, we would not have come this far. But didn’t you turn a blind eye? Are these deaths deserved? The families of the victims who lost their children, their family members, overnight are heartbroken. ‘Do not go down the same path the families of the Sewol ferry victims did’? Why are you trying to cause divisions like this and misrepresent the truth? Is this what the government should do, what a responsible leader of the ruling party should say? Please look back on your actions again. Look back on what you did when the Sewol ferry tragedy happened, and get back to us.”
— Lee Jeong-min, deputy representative of the Council of the Families of the October 29 Itaewon Tragedy Victims, December 10, 2022
On December 11, the motion to remove Lee Sang-min, minister of the Interior and Safety, was carried in the National Assembly by the majority Democratic Party. The National Assembly members for the People Power Party made a collective exit, objecting to the motion. Joo Ho-young, the floor leader of the People Power Party, even claimed that the opposition parties were “denying the results of the presidential election”, because they were doing as they wished with 169 seats in the National Assembly.
Explaining that it is Lee who is responsible for the safety of the people, the Democratic Party criticized the People Power Party’s objection to the motion to remove him from office:
“The People Power Party also showed extreme irresponsibility, saying that all members of the government investigation committee would resign, as soon as the motion for Minister Lee Sang-min’s dismissal from office was carried. It is really shameful and deplorable to see the entire ruling party refusing to obey the grave orders of the people and behaving in a shamelessly petulant manner in order to protect a minister who is the president’s fellow [high school and university] alumnus.”
— Park Honggeun, floor leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, December 12, 2022
On top of that, Kim Seonghoi, former presidential secretary for religion and multiculturalism, also made controversial remarks, which could be considered secondary victimization:
“To families of the Itaewon tragedy victims, were your children conscripted at birth??
Even you couldn’t stop your grownup children from going out to have fun, so why are you pushing all the blame on the government?! When did the president of the free Republic of Korea become the ‘Father Leader’??”
— Kim Seonghoi, former secretary to the president for religion and multiculturalism, December 12, 2022
This is not the first time Kim has adorned the pages of newspapers as a result of comments he has made. The reason he stepped down from his position as a presidential secretary a mere four days after his appointment were the numerous controversial remarks he had made in the past, which included belittling the demand for compensation made by Korean “comfort women” as “money for sex” and asserting that homosexuality is a mental illness.
It seems that people like Kim are forgetting that the victims of the October 29 tragedy died because the government did not respond properly to the warning signs or to the calls for help that were made before and on the day of the tragedy. Rather than trying to tie everything to some ulterior motive and conspiracy, it really is time to embrace those who have lost their loved ones, to hold accountable those who are responsible, and to improve the systems in order to prevent another Sewol ferry tragedy or October 29 tragedy.