Don’t tolerate cheap talk about “not politicizing” Itaewon disaster by those responsible

Posted on : 2022-12-11 09:32 KST Modified on : 2022-12-11 09:32 KST
Politicizing issues is one of the most important responsibilities required of politicians
Family members of those killed in the crowd crush that occurred in a steep alleyway in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood on Oct. 29 hold a press conference outside the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency’s building in Mapo District on Dec. 1 where they call for an investigation to identify those “truly” responsible for the disaster. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)
Family members of those killed in the crowd crush that occurred in a steep alleyway in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood on Oct. 29 hold a press conference outside the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency’s building in Mapo District on Dec. 1 where they call for an investigation to identify those “truly” responsible for the disaster. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)

Let’s imagine a valley or a beach: somewhere that is frequented by many people during a holiday season. Every summer, thousands of accidents and dozens of deaths occur while people splash and play in the water.

These unfortunate accidents do not become political fodder because they are, quite literally, unfortunate accidents, and because there are relatively clear causes such as poor swimming technique, negligence in safety, and drunk swimming.

However, if 10 or more people are seriously injured or killed at the same resort, or if similar types of accidents occur every year in the same place, that’s a different story.

A thorough investigation should be conducted: whether the life jackets or safety tubes were poorly managed; if the poor supervision of the zones where the depth of water suddenly deepens and the water flows fast was due to poor safety measures or regulations; if that were the case, then when were those regulations relaxed and by whom; if there were existing regulations but they were not adhered to, who allowed such negligence to happen.

Politicians calling for tragedies not to be “politicized”

However, it is very difficult for ordinary citizens to be able to themselves investigate and identify such issues, raise the problems before this, and distinguish between right and wrong.

Because victims and bereaved families are in a mental state of confusion, it is very difficult for them to think critically about such issues or know what they should appeal for and to whom. The groups that take a stand at this time are civic groups, activists, and political parties.

Presenting the issues and problems on behalf of the victims and bereaved families and making demands to authorities is what we call “politicizing an issue.” Politicizing issues is, of course, one of the most important responsibilities required of politicians.

However, the critical value of politicizing an issue is now being reduced and ultimately undermined due to misconceptions that politicization means turning something into a mere talking point. But saying no to politicizing issues is no different from saying no to politics.

However, the concept of politicizing an issue here in Korea is only understood as meaning “political warfare” or “partisan warfare” and counteracts any attempts at making something an issue. It has gotten so bad that many now see this concept as dirty or polluted and want to stay as far away from it as possible.

It is not new for conservatives in power to use the word “politics” in a negative way to encourage people to hate and be disinterested in politics. This becomes even more clear when we recall how former President Lee Myung-bak used to warn against approaching issues based on political logic.

The fact that it’s politicians themselves who are calling not to politicize issues is ridiculous enough, but it’s also very regrettable to hear this same kind of rhetoric coming from some in progressive camps.

In the case of the Oct. 29 Itaewon disaster, it is natural for there to be disagreements regarding the public disclosure of a list of names of the victims, but it's not appropriate to condemn such actions by placing them in a framework of “politicizing the issue.”

Disclosing a list of names and politicizing the issue are two different things. Regardless of the views concerning the disclosure, criticizing making the list public as the politicization of an issue risks reinforcing the framework in which any attempts to raise political issues are reduced to acts of just using victims and bereaved families in a partisan way.

Some progressive commentators have pointed out that the Itaewon disaster was caused by the absence of systems and institutions — in other words, by social problems. As such, these figures express doubts about the opposition bloc’s offensive to hold the ruling party responsible for the disaster and are reducing this whole problem to the so-called “politicization” of issues.

A "social problem" is not a matter of which forces are in power, but the logic is that issues that should be approached through institutional and social means should not be dealt with through political disputes. Some say that even if the opposition party, not the current ruling party, was in power, they too wouldn’t have been able to avoid a similar disaster.

In this way, “socialism,” which blames everything on institutions and systemic deficiencies and ultimately reduces them to problems of society and structure, risks making all political actions meaningless. Of course, not all political approaches to disasters are rejected as worthless by those who adhere to such narratives.

While they try to distinguish between a correct political approach and politicizing an issue, there is no way to clearly distinguish between the two.

In order to make such a distinction, it would be necessary to imagine a completely new definition of politics beyond institutional parliamentary politics and representative politics. So, it is difficult to understand how the discussion around this topic eventually boils down to criticizing the two-party system and insisting on establishing a multi-party system.

Anyhow, while such high-level work may definitely be worthwhile, getting high and mighty about this subject at a time when we should be focusing on finding those responsible for the disaster is not appropriate. We should hope this does not become a hindrance in finding those who are responsible.

Don’t blame the social structure

For a moment, let’s think of the Sewol ferry disaster. Although there are few things that can be said with certainty, many people cited unreasonable modifications and renovations, overloading of the ferry and speeding as the causes of the sinking of the Sewol ferry full of high school students.

It has also been pointed out that, due to the easing of regulations in 2008, passenger ships could be used for 30 years instead of the original 20 and that old ship facilities and safety equipment were not properly managed. In this respect, we can say that social problems are what caused the sinking of the Sewol.

However, as novelist Park Min-kyu wrote, the essence of the disaster was not that it was an “accident” in which a ship sank, but that it was an “incident” in which the state failed to save its people. It is very unfair to blame the social structure for this disaster while authorities were sitting idly by while the ship slowly sank.

After all, it is people who operate the institutions and the system and cause authorities to act. In turn, it is politicians who represent such people.

In 2020, as South Korean society was effectively able to control the COVID-19 crisis, the concept of “publicness,” which had disappeared for a while, seemed to be slightly recovering. In a disaster, “publicness” can be simply defined as a promise that “to protect others is to protect myself.”

It is the responsibility of the leaders who run the country to elicit this promise from citizens. But this concept once again disappeared on Oct. 29. And it’s very clear who those responsible are.

This is an issue that needs to be politicized.

By Kim Nae-hoon, writer

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