[Column] Deaths of two college students

Posted on : 2021-05-12 17:07 KST Modified on : 2021-05-12 17:07 KST
Two deaths involving college students roughly the same age have recently shaken up South Korea in different ways
Lee Seon-ho, who died in a workplace accident on April 22, lies in a funeral home in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, on Thursday. (Lee Jeong-a/The Hankyoreh)
Lee Seon-ho, who died in a workplace accident on April 22, lies in a funeral home in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, on Thursday. (Lee Jeong-a/The Hankyoreh)

The first thing I learned after becoming a journalist was the objectification of death.

I encountered numerous deaths each day at the police station, but I never had the leisure to feel bad about them. Instead, I had to look at who had died, how and why, and make a quick decision on the reporting value based on the social status of the deceased.

Later on, I would deplore the whole thing over drinks. “Is this how you treat human beings in this profession?” I asked.

My coworkers would console me, telling me it was “impossible to report all deaths exactly the same way.” When it comes to reporting, you have to make choices.

Two deaths involving college students roughly the same age have recently shaken up South Korea in different ways.

One of them was Son Jeong-min, a 22-year-old medical student who disappeared at the Banpo Han River Park in Seoul and turned up dead five days later. The other was Lee Seon-ho, a 23-year-old student who was fatally crushed by the 300-kg wing of a shipping container while working part-time for a subcontracting business at the Port of Pyeongtaek in Gyeonggi Province to earn money for school.

As many have already noted, the attitudes shown toward these two deaths have been quite different.

After Son’s death, many expressed their grief over the loss and began looking into the mysterious circumstances, as if they were conducting their own personal investigation.

Lee had been dead for 15 days before news of his accident was even reported; even afterward, the mourning did not extend very far.

Some observers suggested that the difference in the level of societal response to the deaths was a reflection of the gap in the two students’ status: one of them a medical student, the other a worker for a subcontracting company. Others have countered that while Son’s death does not seem to involve any larger issues of social structures the way that Lee’s does, the events that led to his death may have been wrongful, and that it is this fact alone that accounts for the greater level of attention.

People are all born the same and all face their eventual death. But the ways in which society looks upon individual deaths are not equal.

We can see evidence of this in the way that everyone has focused on the matter of the taxes paid by the Samsung Lee family after Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee died. The family members were simply paying their due inheritance taxes and belatedly honoring a donation pledge made 13 years ago at the time of the Samsung slush fund scandal — yet society at large heaped praise upon them, overcome by the sheer immensity of the donations and tax bill.

The world’s attitude toward Lee Kun-hee’s death and its attitude toward the deaths of the two college students are as selective as the “news value” we talk about in the media. And it is the media, and the discriminatory ways in which they have relayed these deaths to the world, which have encouraged that kind of selection, openly reaffirming that the world is not an equal place.

Individual deaths should never carry different weight. If we argue that the media should adopt a selective approach, since the world already views death through an unequal lens, then we ought to base our decisions about the issues involved not on the class differences between the two college students themselves, but on the influence that those class differences had on the manner in which their lives ended.

It is for this reason that the Hankyoreh spent several days after Thursday focusing its reports on the specific circumstances leading up to Lee Seon-ho’s death, the lax shipping container management practices that resulted in his death, and structural issues with the dangerous working environments faced by day laborers and other port workers in a similar situation to Lee’s.

According to figures shared by the Ministry of Employment and Labor last month, a total of 882 workers died last year in industrial accidents. That translates into 2.4 lives lost per day.

Of those workers, 42 were under 30 like Lee. Another 64 were aged 30-39, 137 were aged 40-49, and 292 were aged 50-59. Among those aged 60 and up, the total was 347 — or 39.3 percent.

Ninety-four of the industrial accident deaths – 10.7 percent – involved non-South Korean nationals, many of whom are believed to have been migrant workers.

If the press is required to be selective in its reporting on this too, then the next deaths it ought to focus on are the industrial accidents involving migrant workers and senior citizens aged 60 and over. It’s the least we can do in the face of a world that is inherently unequal.

Lee Jae-hoon
Lee Jae-hoon

By Lee Jae-hoon, staff reporter

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

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