Defying the government’s attempts to shut down its activities, the 4.16 Sewol Tragedy Special Investigative Commission held its third investigative hearing on September 1. The Park Geun-hye government has vowed to shut down the investigative commission on September 30, but the commission says it is determined to continue the investigation.
The Commission called on former Chief Presidential Secretary Kim Ki-chun and former National Security Director Kim Jang-soo, as well as key officers of the coast guard and the navy to testify at the hearing to determine if the Blue House’ response at the time of the tragedy was appropriate, but they all failed to appear.
“No information on where the president was during the seven hours after the tragedy, what reports she received and what orders she gave has been publicly shared,” noted Attorney Park Jong-un, who serves on the Sewol Investigative Commission.
“The Blue House refuses to release the documents related to the tragedy on the grounds that they will be designated as part of the classified presidential archives, but that is for the purpose of protecting state secrets and should be broached after the president’s term is over,” said Jeon Jin-hwan, who also serves on the Commission. “Based on their logic, no information related to the Blue House can be made public, but that violates the rights of citizens to know the truth,” he added.
Hearing Confirms Excessive Force against Farmer Baek Nam-gi
On September 12, the Security and Public Administration Committee of the National Assembly held a hearing on the police’ use of excessive force against demonstrators on November 14, 2015. Farmer and lifetime activist Baek Nam-gi has been in a coma for the past nine months after being knocked unconscious by a water cannon during the mass demonstration last November.
Former Police Chief Kang Shin-myung, who oversaw police operations during last November’s demonstration and testified at the hearing, refused to apologize to the family of Baek Nam-gi. Instead, he blamed the problem on the protesters and their “extreme protest culture.” “Our society has many systemic and legal procedures in place for people to voice their opinions, but some still insist on resolving problems through violence or the force of their majority, and that’s why extreme protests still continue,” Kang said. He was also nonchalant about the danger of the use of water cannons. “Most water cannons are not dangerous,” he said, “So far, only one person has been injured due to water cannons.”
The hearings revealed that the police received inadequate training on the use of water cannons. Despite guidelines that clearly state that water cannons should be directed at areas below the chest when using them against protesters, the police officer who operated the water cannon vehicle that crippled Baek Nam-gi testified that he had never received training on such guidelines. The officer, only identified as Officer Choi, said that the mass demonstration last November was his first day on the field.
The police also refused to hand over its earliest report on the incident that landed Baek Nam-gi in a coma.
Police testimony was followed by expert witnesses who assessed the police’ use of water cannons against demonstrators as extremely dangerous. Computational fluid dynamics expert Noh Hyeon-seok explained, “The torque value that collapsed farmer Baek Nam-gi was 363kgf-m. The torque value that runs the engine in the largest commercial vehicle out on the market today is 260kgf-m. A force greater than the power that turns the engine of the largest commercial vehicle hurled Baek Nam-gi’s head against a hard asphalt floor.”
Occupation Prompts Opposition Leader to Pledge Cooperation
The hearings followed on the heels of a week-long occupation of the Mijoo Party headquarters in Seoul by the bereaved families of the Sewol tragedy and supporters of farmer Baek Nam-gi from August 25 to 31.
During the occupation, Jeong In-suk, Public Relations Chair of the 4.16 Families of the Sewol Tragedy, accused the main opposition party of avoiding repeated appeals for help from the families and expressed his disappointment – ”They made compromises with the ruling party without exchanging a single word with the bereaved families, who had to learn about their compromises through the media.”
Facing a government shutdown of the Sewol Special Investigative Commission on September 30, the bereaved families have been demanding the Minjoo Party revise the Sewol Special Law in the national assembly to extend the mandate of the commission and allow the investigation to continue.
“Revisions to the Sewol Special Law need to be made before the end of September,” said Reverend Park Seung-ryeol, Chair of the National Association of Ministers for Peace and Justice, who joined the hunger strike in support of the families. “Before the general election in April, they said they didn’t have enough seats to make it happen. So the people gave them the majority in the general election. Now they complain the ruling Saenuri Party won’t listen to them. Then they should make them listen, but the opposition party is always busy blaming other people,” he added.
On the day the bereaved families occupied the Minjoo office, the opposition party held a general assembly and resolved to support the Sewol investigation and work harder to revise the Sewol Special Law. But the families of the Sewol Tragedy were unimpressed. “Revising the Sewol Special Law is something the Minjoo Party had already adopted as its platform,” they pointed out, “The government wants to shut down the truth commission in September, which is just around the corner. It’s time to put forth a concrete plan to carry out their party platform.”
The protesters ended their occupation of the Minjoo Party headquarters only after the newly elected party chair Choo Mi-ae met with them and pledged to take the lead in revising the Sewol Special Law. During the meeting, Choo remarked, “Our national income may have increased, but our social development has not kept apace. So many aspects of our society are still backward. As an elected official, I feel a great responsibility to create a society that values human lives.”
After ending their occupation, the members of the 4.16 Families of the Sewol Tragedy moved to Gwanghwamun Plaza to join other bereaved families in an ongoing hunger strike to demand the investigation be allowed to continue. “That’s just one party,” said Jang Hun, the Investigation Chair of the 4.16 Families of the Sewol Tragedy, “The other one, the People’s Party, is not responding. I didn’t realize it’s this painful to be a parent. Until we hear from them, we will not end our hunger strike in Gwanghwamun Plaza.”
The bereaved family members, some of whom have now been on a hunger strike for over fifty days, and a coalition of forty civil society groups, including the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union and Lawyers for a Democratic Society, vow to gear into emergency mode as soon as soon as the Chuseok national holidays are over and escalate pressure on the national assembly to revise the Sewol Special Law.
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