Mercilessness, fearsome reaction from an incapacitating country … Yongsan disaster story

Disclaimer: The following is a totally unauthoritative personal translation of an article appeared in <The Hankyoreh 21> on Jun. 20, 2011, relaying the opinion of Kim Dong-chun, a social science professor at Seongkonghoe University, on the Yongsan disaster that took place Jan. 20, 2009. Sentences in the first paragraph say it all: “The Yongsan disaster … is a microscope that viscerally shows the Lee Myung-bak government’s policy for ordinary people and the true nature of government authority such as police, prosecution, gu-office, court, or Blue House against the social weak and meager.” And this is exactly why the Yongsan disaster is still meaningful to us even three years after the incident. The rights regarding this post stay with the original author of the article or with <The Hankyoreh 21> and this post will be scrapped immediately at their request. Although I paid utmost attention and effort to translate people’s names and positions correctly, they may not match their genuine English translations. Original article of this post can be found in the link at the bottom.

Mercilessness, fearsome reaction from an incapacitating country [2011.06.20 No.865]

[김동춘의 폭력의 세기 vs 정의의 미래]

I witnessed, at Yongsan disaster, a Korean war time subjugation operation that called for civilian massacre ①

‘Politics of suppression and eradication’ a fault abundant government’s consciousness of crisis brought about

The Yongsan disaster that took place on Jan. 20, 2009, is a microscope that viscerally shows the Lee Myung-bak government’s policy for ordinary people and the true nature of government authority such as police, prosecution, gu-office, court, or Blue House against the social weak and meager. Although I will analyze the Yongsan disaster from various angles through a series of contributed articles, I will, in this article, reveal the continuity between the Yongsan disaster and the subjugation operations of North Korean partisans before and after the Korean war in 1950 and prove that the disaster was not an accidental, one-time incident but an incident that inadvertently exposed the behind-the-scene working mechanism of ruling order of our society. In a sense, we can safely call it the ‘politics of suppression and eradication’.

North Korean partisan subjugation operations that overlap the Yongsan disaster

Why did the police carry out the operation that claimed lives of 5 protesters and 1 policeman? Why did the police move into the watch tower where dangerous weapons like firebombs and large slingshots were stacked? Were the protesters prime criminals and risky people that threatened the safety of citizens that should be suppressed by mobilizing police attack force? Did their existence, as indicated in the final supreme court ruling statement, potentially imply ‘the possibility of serious infringement of public safety and order’?


» Lee Myung-bak’s government, spooked frantically by the candlelight protests, tried to suppress ‘potential enemy’ fast by force and fulfilled its role as an agent of contractors and construction companies that would be awarded with huge development profits. On Jan. 20, 2009 early in the morning, the watchtower on the top is under heavy fire as the police staged a forcible suppression operation against tenants who had been staging a protest in the ‘Namildang’ building in Hangangro 3-ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul. Hankyoreh Kim Myeong-jin 김명진

Just after the incident, Kim Soo-jung, deputy chief of Seoul Regional Police Agency, said “If the protest site was an uncrowded place, police would not have resorted to a risky operation.(…) However weak they were, they threatened the safety of citizens with lethal weapons like firebombs, thinners, hydrochloric acid, and we decided to suppress them before they could cause bigger disaster. (…) The protest site was too dangerous not to suppress them sooner than later. (…) We had to step in since residents of demolition area were exercising downtown terrors like throwing firebombs or bricks in the middle of city.” And, he added that Seoul would have been an inferno if left unsuppressed. On Jan. 19, the day before suppression, chief of Yongsan Police Station was known to demand the mobilization of police SWAT team during the first emergency meeting with deputy chief of Seoul Regional Police Agency and the leader of SWAT team around 1PM. It is known that the mobilization of SWAT team was decided at that meeting and reported to Kim Seok-ki, then chief of Seoul Regional Police Agency.

That is to say, the police SWAT team, a special suppression squad, was mobilized from the judgement that the protesters were exercising terrorism that would “harm innocent human lives.” Like the statement that Iraq had been behind the terrorism and possessed weapons of mass destruction, which had forced them to attack preemptively by then President of US, George Bush, to justify the Iraq invasion in 2003, police claimed that the protesters were as violent as terrorists whose violence could not be tolerated any more, and they had to forcibly suppress the protesters rather than simply dispersing or arresting those protesters.

As we witnessed in video footages of Yongsan disaster, the scene that police pushed protesters sideways as if chasing games in a hunting exercise and dismantled the watchtower reminds us of the April 3 incident in Jeju, Yeosoo-Sooncheon incident, or the communist partisan clearance operations during the Korean war time. At that time, the military, judging that remaining partisans were a great risk to them, carried out merciless clearance operations. Post-operation examination revealed that most dead people were residents, women, or the old and the infirm who gathered all family members and fled to the mountains to avoid violence by the military and the police and weapons at their disposal were simply clubs or bamboo spears for defense. The military celebrated for accomplishments but the accomplishments were, in fact, just disasters of innocent civilians. At that time, they moved to mountains, which made them justifiable enemies to be safely removed by force and, now, the protesters climbed the watchtower, armed themselves with firebombs, and threw firebombs and stones at the police below, which puts them safely in the category of terrorists. Police SWAT team, though moved in to arrest people on the watchtower, were in fact unequipped with any safety gears but cut the protesters’ retreat passage, which forced the losses of 5 protesters and a member of their own. The court’s final decision was a lawful exercise of government authority and the dead protesters killed themselves after all.

Lee Myung-bak’s government with the same mind during Rhee Syng-man’s time

Did they really do any harm to people before the suppression? The police claimed that they had thrown stones and golf balls and had incurred damages like broken windshields of cars parked below; the police also claimed that they had thrown firebombs to the street as well. But even in the police report, there is no record of civilian or police damages from the ‘terrorism’. The firebombs were found to be thrown after the initiation of police suppression operation. After all, risks like ‘threat to civilian life’, ‘Seoul inferno’ are close to fabricated justification for the suppression operation. There was no reason for tenant protesters who needed sympathy from fellow citizens to target them for terrorism.

Like the tenants’ testimony “For them, one day demolition delay is more important than a human life. That’s why the demolition struggle is a war”, contractor companies wielded violence in redevelopment area because of their contract with the construction company. Of course, the main players of the Yongsan redevelopment area demolition work were big construction companies that practically supervised and funded them. If the demolition work was delayed, the contractor companies should have paid the redevelopment cooperative the delay compensation fee and the construction companies should have paid extra-interests to banks; in short, risks to gigantic profits expected from the redevelopment mounted. Then, were the police and SWAT team the agencies of construction companies or contractor companies who were pressed for time? As a citizen, I really don’t want to think like this, and, in fact, it would not have been like that.


» (Left) In Nov. 2007, surviving families are examining the remains excavation site in Jeju International Airport provided by Jeju 4·3 Institute. Hankyoreh Hur Ho-jun 허호준 (Right) Around Oct. 23, 1948, the military and police are questioning civilians at Seo Elementary school, Sooncheon-si, Jeonnam, to identify those involved in the Yeosoo-Sooncheon rebellion incident. Hankyoreh archive

Then, how can we understand the police who mobilized a private contractor company to the exercise of government authority and, even before then, ignoring the contractor companies’ violence, carried out things construction companies desperately wanted? I think the solution is already in the deputy chief’s statement. That is the claim that they were armed near the downtown roadside. Police could not be unaware of the fact that they, in fact, did not do any harm to the lives of citizens. The point was that they could not simply watch their armaments ‘with patience’ and they had to suppress them fast. That is to say, their protest was seen by all pedestrians, which implied the vivid realization of government’s failure to impose legal orders. Consequently, the fact whether they were causing damages to civilians was not the issue; rather, the fact that their armed protest itself stood out to the pedestrians, which could be seen as the incapacitation of government authority was the issue. Although they were not objectively like that, they were subjectively regarded as ‘terrorists’ by Lee Myung-bak’s government and became a threat. This is exactly the same with the mind of Rhee Syng-man’s government at Jeju April 3 incident or Korean war time who even regarded barely armed residents who fled to mountains to avoid government’s violence as nation-threatening communist partisans that should be cleared as soon as possible.

The logic of eradication that would not just leave any resistance untended

This reminds us of the ‘Critique of Violence’ by Walter Benjamin. Benjamin asserted that, to the ruling circle, suspending existing orders such as labor strikes would be regarded as threats to the overall system even though the resistance did not entail any violence. Country, or the government authority would regard even the individual level violence as a threat that can capsize the nation or the law and order; the individual level violence would create an area where country or law would not be upheld and, even if it is meant for defense, the existence of such resistant violence should not be tolerated. In this case, a country that feels less legitimate to her people or a regime that is all the more conscious of the resistance ignorant of herself would be less tolerant to the resistance’s armaments.

This kind of reaction originated from the idea that the stature of law, country’s monopoly of violence, would be collapsed if the resistant violence was left untended. The reason why US military government and Rhee Syng-man’s government suppressed Jeju April 3 uprising so thoroughly and why Rhee Syng-man’s government so mercilessly subjugated the North Korean army collaborators or partisans around Jeonra-do or Kyoungsang-do were all based on the same logic. At that time, the sheer existence of area where government authority could not reach was by itself a huge threat and challenge to a new born government. The eradication of resistant group and unsuppressible force was a necessary condition to secure the confidence of US that controlled the life cord of Rhee Syng-man’s government. Therefore, Rhee Syng-man’s government had to show its capacity to rule this country. Therefore, it didn’t matter whether the number of unarmed partisans was tens or hundreds. It was important that, without getting rid of their existence, there was no room for their government. That’s why Rhee Syng-man’s government carried out an overreaching subjugation operation that massacred mounting about 30,000 civilians to get rid of 500 partisans in Halla mountain.

The thing that drove those who were on the watchtower preparing firebombs not to be forcibly suppressed to death was their way of thinking which equated the simple holding survival ground with terrorism that attacked our country and people. Protesters that were holding their downtown ground armed with violence weapons were, to Lee Myung-bak’s government, enemies that should be eradicated as soon as possible. Yongsan disaster was borne out of the logic of subjugation that they could not leave any ‘enemy’ behind the front line where government authority could not reach or the consciousness of urgency and crisis, as at the time before and after the Korean war, that they could not leave any resistant violence left untended. Yongsan protesters were, though they did not attack government directly, a threat by themselves.

In the past as in Roh Moo-hyun’s government, residents of demolition area resisted the same way; they built watchtowers and armed themselves with firebombs. At that time, there were even bloody clashes between residents and police/demolition contractor thugs in Sangdo-dong, Seoul, and Yongdoo-dong, Daejeon. But, at that time, police did not suppress the residents of demolition area as if chasing games in a hunt exercise; they tried to draw agreements though tormenting negotiations. Then government was rather permissive to violence against government because they did not feel threatened that much. Although the armament by residents of demolition area was by itself a threat to the law and order but they were not the subjects of suppression.

Hopelessly tumbled validity of government authority

In that sense, Yongsan’s murderous suppression was Lee Myung-bak government’s accomplishment from start to end. The idea that they would not leave important redevelopment plan be delayed or wrecked by the resistance of a few tenants, the idea that they dare to resist to government authority, the fear that, if left untended, candlelight rallies and labor strikes would follow and incapacitate the government authority all together; such a persecution complex piled up to the exaggeration of the ‘Seoul inferno’ expression and eventually drove them to carry out the murderous suppression. New born Rhee Syng-man government’s ‘subjective fear’ was the background of overreaching partisan subjugation operations; Lee Myung-bak’s government spooked frantically by candlelight rallies fulfilled its role as the agency of contractor companies and construction companies that would garner huge development profits to suppress potential enemies by force preemptively. That, as had been the case with Rhee Syng-man government’s countless murderous suppression operations, did not establish the authority of government; rather, it tumbled the justification and stature of government authority hopelessly.

성공회대 사회과학부 교수

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