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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Oct. 1)

All Headlines 09:13 October 01, 2016

Protester's death
: Government should rethink coercive response to dissent

The recent death of farmer Baek Nam-gi, 68, has attracted attention from some foreign media outlets that have described it as another case of backtracking on democracy and human rights under the Park Geun-hye administration. Baek died after being in a coma for about 10 months at Seoul National University Hospital after being knocked down with a police water cannon during one of the largest anti-government rallies in Seoul on Nov. 14, 2015.

The New York Times reported that government critics here see Baek's death as the result of "police brutality and the erosion of freedom of assembly under Ms. Park," while providing details about the 68-year-old's background that was rarely covered by the local media. According to the New York Times article, Baek was expelled from university twice in the 1970s while protesting the rule of President Park Chung Hee, the father of the incumbent. Human Rights Watch called Baek "a prominent symbol of victimization, excessive use of force by police and the government's growing crackdown on freedom of assembly under President Park Geun-hye's rule."

There are three things the government should do in the aftermath of Baek's death. First, Baek's death should be an occasion for the government to reflect on its anachronistic reaction to dissent and its unilateral policy decisions that have given Korea a bad name in the foreign press. The Park administration has already disgraced the nation by drawing criticism from abroad for its crackdown on labor and its push to bring back the publication of state-authored history textbooks that had been used during the authoritarian rule of the 1970s. Last year, the Nation weekly magazine published an article entitled "In South Korea, a Dictator's Daughter Cracks Down on Labor" while a New York Times editorial criticized Park's move for the unilateral history education policy. Cheong Wa Dae should be mindful that the foreign media is closely following the activities of her administration and their assessment affects Korea's global reputation.

Second, the government should review its tactics in managing assemblies. Baek's death has instigated public indignation about police brutality, such as excessive use of police force during demonstrations. Although the protest that Baek was participating in was labeled as illegal by the government, the police should have exercised restraint in using violence to ensure the safety of protesters and citizens. The freedom of assembly to promote a justifiable cause should not be undermined in a mature society as long it is done in a peaceful, orderly manner.

Last but not least, a full investigation should be conducted to uncover whether there was excessive use of police force during the protest and whether that was the exact cause of Baek's death. Doctors reported that Baek had sustained a cerebral hemorrhage suspected of having been caused by the water cannon.

Undeniably, police reaction to Baek's death has been inadequate. International human rights organizations and trade unions have issued a joint statement condemning Korea's prosecution and the police for their coercive manner. It should at least have offered words of condolence to the bereaved family since Baek was injured during a clash between the police and the demonstrators. Video footage has shown that Baek continued to be blasted by the water cannon even after being knocked down to the ground. But former police chief Kang Sin-myeong refused to apologize for Baek's death during a National Assembly hearing last month, saying that the police cannot apologize every time someone dies or gets hurt during a rally. Such an irresponsible response has lost the people's trust in law enforcement.

If the police are found to have caused Baek's death, then the perpetrators should be subject to due punishment and the family should receive appropriate compensation.
(END)

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