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[Editorial] Wisdom Needed to Resolve Yongsan Clash

Posted February. 10, 2009 09:23,   


Prosecutors yesterday announced the results of their investigation into the Jan. 20 deadly clash at a redevelopment site in Seoul’s Yongsan district. They said the use of force by police was legitimate. The probe concluded that the direct cause of fire that killed six people was the mishandling of paint thinner and fire bombs by protesters. This means police were not accountable given the dire situation of violent protesters hurling Molotov cocktails down onto the streets and threatening the lives and security of citizens.

It is unfortunate that human lives were lost in the process of the police operation. Given that the direct cause of fire was paint thinner and fire bombs, however, police should be cleared of criminal charges. Moreover, forcing police to take excessive responsibility could bring social insecurity and confusion by undermining legitimate means to secure law and order, especially considering the rampant illegal and violent protests in Korean society.

Prosecutors also expressed regret over the preparation and coordination in the police operation since six people died in the incident. In other words, they admit police preparation and strategies for the operation were problematic. In this regard, it is hard to see that all police measures at the scene were appropriate and legitimate, though no illegal activity was committed by police.

Appropriate means are important to the legitimacy of action by law enforcement. All police action cannot be justified even if no illegal action was found. Since the huge amount of paint thinner and Molotov cocktails stocked on the roof of the occupied building could have triggered a massive disaster, police should have taken prior measures to minimize the damage. Therefore, it is hard to believe police took all necessary and sufficient measures in the Yongsan incident.

Seoul police chief Kim Seok-ki should accept moral responsibility for the deaths of the six victims, including one police officer, though he might not be legally accountable. It is hard to understand why he gave orders and received reports on his cell phone while turning off his radio telegraph at the scene. As the nominee to take over the National Police Agency, he should find a way to contribute to the organization and national interest and to save face for public authorities and himself.

The political circle should not seek political gains by attempting to fan social conflict through the incident. The main opposition Democratic Party’s call for a reinvestigation of the tragedy is based on its pursuit of partisan interest. The most crucial thing for the government and the political circle to do is to provide rational redevelopment strategies to minimize damage to evictees and submerged tenants and prevent a recurrence of the Yongsan disaster.