Posted on : Apr.20,2015
With South Korean citizens organizing a series of events to commemorate the anniversary of the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry, the police seemed resolved to brutally put down these peaceful demonstrations and marches. The same government that did such a poor job of rescuing passengers on the ferry is wielding a terrible power as it tramples on the grief of the victims’ families and other South Koreans and as it suppresses the justified appeals for the truth.
During a memorial event on Apr. 16, the first anniversary of the sinking, the police responded with excessive force, sealing off Gwanghwamun Square behind a barricade of buses and firing tear gas at marchers. During this process, the mother of one student who died in the sinking sustained four broken ribs.
During the nationwide public assembly for the anniversary of the Sewol tragedy on Apr. 18, the police mustered around 470 vehicles and 13,700 officers to completely wall of Gyeongbok Palace, Gwanghwamun Square, and Sejong street intersection.
The police indiscriminately fired water cannons and tear gas and hauled off around a hundred members of the victims’ families who tried to protest the hard-line response. Reportedly, the police dragged off a university student by her hair. These are grim scenes that evoke the days before democratization [sic].
Citing the inconvenience to motorists caused by protestors marching down the streets and violence including attacks on police officers, the police insist that their harsh response was unavoidable. But there is nothing unusual about rerouting traffic in downtown Seoul because of various events, such as the marathon that was held last weekend.
Mourning a national tragedy and calling for a thorough investigation is protected by freedom of expression. If anything, in a democracy, this kind of expression ought to be protected more than any other kind of event.
If it were not for the excessive police response, no confrontations or physical clashes would have occurred in the first place. Even worse, using bus barricades to cordon off traffic and block demonstrations is a clear violation of the constitution, according to a decision by the Constitutional Court. The explanation offered by the police is no more than an excuse, and a flimsy one at that.
“The unnecessary use of force by South Korean police against families of the Sewol ferry tragedy is an insult to the victims and a violation of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” global human rights advocacy group Amnesty International said.
“The use of chemical irritants primarily to disperse peaceful protesters [. . . ] is unlawful under international legal standards,” the group also said.
It is mortifying to consider what the international community, which is observing the anniversary of the Sewol tragedy, will make of such a situation.
What’s the point of President Park diligently traveling to foreign countries? A single picture of police violently clamping down on citizens gathered together to mourn a national tragedy degrades South Korea’s international prestige at a single blow.
The surprisingly brutal attitude of the police would be inconceivable, were it not for the attitude with which the Park administration has responded to the Sewol disaster. If the government had made a sincere effort to get to the bottom of the tragedy, such a situation would never have occurred.
For an entire year after the accident, the government has stonewalled the launch of the Special Sewol Investigative Committee and delayed the salvaging of the sunken ferry. Finally, now that it is facing massive criticism and resistance, it has taken drastic measures to muzzle the public.
When these events are viewed in this light, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the rash behavior of the police was directed by, or at least received the tacit approval of, core figures in the current administration. The figures who came up with the idea of suppressing the protests must be identified and held responsible.
Edited by Zuo Shou