[Column] Politicians, not parents, should be brought to knees over Itaewon disaster

Posted on : 2022-12-06 16:54 KST Modified on : 2022-12-06 16:54 KST
We’re seeing the same tragedy of the Sewol ferry disaster playing out all over again eight years later
Lee Jong-cheol, whose son was killed in the crowd crush that claimed over 150 lives in Itaewon in October, falls to his knees during a National Assembly roundtable with victims’ families by a special committee for a parliamentary probe into the disaster on Dec. 1. (Yonhap)
Lee Jong-cheol, whose son was killed in the crowd crush that claimed over 150 lives in Itaewon in October, falls to his knees during a National Assembly roundtable with victims’ families by a special committee for a parliamentary probe into the disaster on Dec. 1. (Yonhap)
By Kim Kyung-wook, special content editor

After losing his beloved son in the Itaewon disaster, a father fell to his knees, prostrate and begging before politicians. He asked them to give him honest and thorough answers as to why his son died and why the state failed to function as it should have.

In particular, he called on the leadership of the ruling People Power Party (PPP), entreating interim leader Chung Jin-suk and floor leader Joo Ho-young by name.

“Please reveal the truth. I beg of you. Please, I beg of you,” the father cried. His laments were followed by the sound of reporters’ camera shutters.

On Thursday, Lee Jong-cheol knelt down and urged a thorough investigation into the Itaewon disaster while attending a meeting of those who had lost loved ones and the special committee overseeing the parliamentary investigation into the Itaewon disaster at the National Assembly.

Lee lost his son, Lee Ji-han, in the Itaewon crowd crush on Oct. 29. As Lee knelt down and made his tearful appeal, the dozen or so other bereaved family members present at the meeting buried their faces in their desks as they broke into tears. Their sobs echoed over Lee’s sorrowful voice.

The meeting held that day, however, was only half complete. This is because all the PPP members of the parliamentary investigation committee failed to attend. Their decision to be absent that day was fueled by the Democratic Party’s proposition the previous day to have Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min dismissed.

That day, Lee Jong-cheol’s appeal on his knees to have the truth discovered and those responsible punished was directed at the PPP leadership.

However, things were no different exactly eight years before the Itaewon disaster took place. On Oct. 29, 2014, Lee Nam-seok, a parent who lost a child in the Sewol ferry disaster, knelt down before Kim Moo-sung, the head of the then-ruling Saenuri Party, the PPP’s precursor.

“Please help so that a Sewol Ferry Special Act can be established,” Lee appealed to Kim at the time. Their encounter had not been planned.

That same day, former President Park Geun-hye visited the National Assembly to deliver an administrative policy speech, completely brushing off and ignoring the bereaved families who were staging a sit-in there calling for the enactment of a special act for investigating the truth of the Sewol ferry disaster. The president's intentional neglect of them led to Lee clinging to the ruling party leader while he was getting into his car in front of the National Assembly building.

Lee said the following in an interview with the Hankyoreh at the time.

“I really hated Kim, but since I’m a powerless father, an incompetent father who can’t even find out why his son died, I prostrated myself before him,” Lee said.

It is abhorrent to watch these parents have to resort to such actions. In a world where the child they once held in their arms has disappeared, parents are brought to their knees to make desperate appeals, begging for someone, anyone, to give them answers and for those responsible to be punished.

This is because there is no possibility of closure or sending their children off properly so long as their cause of death remains unclear. To this end, these parents have had to endure living hell each and every passing day. This remains as true today as it was for parents eight years ago.

But the disaster itself is not the only source of tragedy. The Sewol ferry disaster illustrated with absolute clarity that being unable to reveal the truth and failing to hold those responsible to account are also tragedies in their own right.

And there are signs that this same kind of tragedy is now repeating itself. A month has passed since 158 people died while walking down the street in the middle of Seoul because the state failed to carry out the duties it has been entrusted with.

Among those who should be the ones on their knees — senior government officials such as the minister of the interior and safety and the commissioner general of the National Police Agency — no one is taking responsibility. To make matters worse, the special parliamentary investigation committee, which finally got off the ground after so much difficulty, has already reached a standstill due to power struggles between the ruling and opposition parties.

Meanwhile, hate speech and secondary victimization directed toward victims and bereaved families and scapegoating are all on the rise on social media and in the comment sections of news articles.

This is all the result of failing to hold those responsible to account. Just like what happened with the Sewol ferry disaster, as time goes by, it is obvious that cruel attacks directed at the victims, including bereaved family members, will continue to get worse.

One more thing is clear, however. The bereaved families pressing for a thorough investigation and punishment of those responsible won't give up easily. It's because they will always have in their hearts their children, who were their lives.

I learned that from the bereaved families of the Sewol sinking. Park Yo-seop said, "I'm endlessly sorry I couldn't protect my child. So I can never give up. When I think of Si-chan, I'm not afraid of any attack or any person, regardless of how much power and money they have. That's the strength that let me endure for years. I'm confident I could win any fight. He'll be watching from heaven..."

Like the families eight years ago, those who could not say goodbye to their loved ones have begun a silent struggle. As of Monday, 87 bereaved family members had taken part in a preparative meeting for the tentatively named "Association of the Bereaved Families of the Victims of the Oct. 29 Itaewon Tragedy."

Getting to the bottom of the Itaewon tragedy begins now.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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