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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Jan. 16)

Editorials from Korean dailies 07:08 January 16, 2023

Sparing top officials
Steps needed to prevent recurrences of disasters

The police wrapped up their investigation into the deadly crowd crush in Itaewon, referring over 20 low-level officials to the prosecution.

However, it spared three high-ranking officials whom many people believe were responsible for the man-made disaster. The bereaved families of the 159 victims, who were mostly young revelers, also said the probe "cut off the lizard's tail to spare the head."

However, few Koreans appear surprised by the results.

Since the tragedy, which occurred in late October, the government and the ruling party have only been interested in containing the political fallout, trying to protect the Seoul mayor, the minister of the interior and safety and the country's police chief.

In a month-long parliamentary hearing, these officials also showed a total lack of willingness to take responsibility, saying they did not know or remember their critical missions or details. They even overreacted to questioning by lawmakers. Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min asked, "Do you think I was idling away the time?" Yoon Hee-keun, the National Police Agency Commissioner, said, "I can drink on weekend nights. Do I have to make that public?"

These officials were encouraged by their boss. From the start, President Yoon Suk Yeol tried to play down this tragedy. Yoon has yet to issue a presidential statement of apology to the nation. He reportedly told officials to use the word "accident" instead of "disaster." The president said, "They must hold the 'right' people accountable."

It was a de facto instruction for police investigators who had to investigate their superiors in the "self-probe." In this way, the radius of responsibility was bound to narrow sharply ― to 23 lower-level officials with the Yongsan District head or district police station chief at the top. However, as German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt said in her book, "Eichmann in Jerusalem," the degree of responsibility may actually increase the farther the decision makers are away from the people who use lethal tools with their own hands.

Replace the term, "responsibility," with "responsibility by omission," and one finds the connection to the Itaewon tragedy. Yoon has virtually made it clear that he would not dismiss ― at least for the time being ― Minister Lee, who went to the same high school and university as he did.

This situation will only increase the political repercussions in the long term. Yoon must sack his safety minister and national police chief, who inflicted "secondary harm" on families by pointing to some of the victims' problems, as well as by deflecting responsibility.

An increasing number of Koreans find it difficult to understand their leader's inaction.

Yoon's inaction might reflect his loyalty to his subordinates or the political calculation that any concession to his opponents might weaken the presidency. Or the president might think of the disaster as just an "accident by young pleasure-seekers in a foreign festival," as some on the extreme right say. The same people also played down the Sewol ferry tragedy eight years ago as a "traffic accident." Unlike former President Park Geun-hye, Yoon did the least he could, visiting altars for days and consoling bereaved family members.

Any government, or any country for that matter, cannot be considered as being advanced if it makes light of people's lives or appears to do that. Most Koreans felt ashamed when the foreign media described the disaster as "preventable" (had this nation given more value to human lives). The international press criticized the "blame-shifting" officials. Some pointed out that most of the police officers at the time were not near the crowd but rather surrounding the neighboring presidential office to "prevent anti-Yoon protests."

Right-wing groups stress the importance of upholding the nation's reputation or dignity, accusing those on the left of turning a "tragedy into political strife." However, what can hurt the nation's reputation more than the president protecting the officials responsible for a preventable disaster? How can they equate the appeals of the bereaved families for these officials to apologize, take responsibility and face punishment as "partisan bickering?"

On the eighth anniversary of the Sewol ferry disaster last year, Yoon, who was president-elect at the time, wrote on his Facebook page, "I believe making Korea safer is the sincerest way to express condolences to the victims."

The first thing Yoon should do to this end is to sack the responsible officials and order a reinvestigation.


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