Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Fire This Time

It's become routine for Korean people being dislocated by "redevelopment" programs to protest. But under President Lee Myung-bak's administration, such routine democratic behavior is more and more embattled. Lee is hostile to citizens who behave like citizens instead of docile employees, as shown by his paranoid response to last summer's candlelight vigils against US beef imports.

Tuesday morning the Seoul police raided a sit-in on the rooftop of a five-story commercial building in the Yongsan district. Accounts of what happened vary, naturally, but it is certain that six people were killed, one of them a policeman, and twenty-three were injured when a fire broke out. The police claim that the protestors threw Molotov cocktails which ignited cans of paint thinner. The protestors say they threw Molotov cocktails after the police turned water cannons on them (in January weather, on a fifth-story rooftop!). It was the first day of the protest, and the police seem to have moved in without attempting to deal with the protesters first. According to The Hankyoreh, 1600 police were involved in the action; I haven't yet seen any report of the number of protesters.

I have mixed feelings about this. The Hankyoreh chides the police for moving carelessly into "an area they knew to be dangerous", though I'd criticize them more for using water cannons in such a confined space -- were they trying to kill people? On the other hand, the protesters brought Molotov cocktails into an area they knew to be dangerous -- 70 containers of highly inflammable paint thinner! -- and threw at least one of them; for once, the police claims seem to coincide with the protestors'. I support people who fight back against police violence, but the weapons must be chosen sensibly. It's lucky more people weren't killed, and both sides share the blame.

And now it seems that the families of the dead (except for the one police officer, of course) have been impeded by the police "from confirming the identities of their bodies".
In addition to being consistently irresponsible towards the victims’ families, police are using harsh tactics against citizens protesting the deaths. They used a water cannon against 1,500 people who held a candlelight protest late Tuesday night, then engaged angrier protesters in a stone-throwing battle. then the police threw rocks back at the more active protesters. Roughly twenty people were injured at the candlelight protest, including members of the press, and were taken to area hospitals. Two people were arrested.

Police even used violence against members of a National Assembly fact-finding mission.

According to statements from the Renewal of Korea Party Wednesday, party member Yu Won-il identified himself as a member of the National Assembly but was verbally abused and beaten, with police demanding to know “if you can do what you want ‘cause you’re a member of the National Assembly.” He has since been diagnosed with a concussion, requiring two weeks of treatment.

In other news, the blogger known as Minerva has been indicted "on charges of spreading false information through online articles to destabilize the foreign exchange market." The Korea Times is a bit more critical than I'd have expected, noting again that the information Minerva posted was accurate, not false.

(P.S. January 24: The Hankyoreh reports:

A recording of a police radio transmission made just before Tuesday’s deadly crackdown on a protest in the Yongsan district revealed that police armed and hired security guards to participate in a joint operation to evict tenants and protesters. The record, which contradicts the police’s assertion that it did not mobilize the contracted personnel, is expected to influence an ongoing investigation being conducted by the prosecution.

This news fits with the Korean government's increasing tendency to try to repress dissent under Lee Myung-bak. It's depressing to think that Koreans should have to fight again the battles they fought for freedom in the years before 1987. But at least, under present conditions, it's a little easier to expose the government's lies, and it may be possible to fight this out in the courts rather than the streets. More information here.)