“Jan. 20, 2009 is repeating, again and again and again” … Story of Two Doors

Disclaimer: The following is a totally unauthoritative personal translation of an article appeared in SisaIN Live on Jun. 26, 2012, reporting an interview with directors of documentary film <Two Doors 두 개의 문> that deals with the Yongsan disaster. In Jan.20, 2009, a big fire broke out at the top of a building in a redevelopment area in Seoul during a police operation. At the top of the building then, a group of demolition residents had been staging a desperate protest in a watchtower of their own made on an issue of outrageous compensation for a while. They were so desperate that, fearing for possible police suppression operation near the day of police suppression, the demolition residents were known to pile up incendiary materials in the watchtower. However, in a rather reckless move, the police actually undertook the suppression operation only to causing a huge fire and losing 5 demolition residents and one member of their own SWAT team there. Other 23 people were injured. Although there has been much talk about the legitimacy of the operation, lack of negotiation effort prior to the operation, lack of safety measures upon highly risky suppression operation, use of excessive force, etc. all surviving demolition residents at the watchtower then were tried and received heavy punishments from the court. This new documentary movie, using official court evidences and videoclips, recounts the incident from police SWAT team members’ point of view and tries to gauge what actually caused the Yongsan disaster. All rights regarding this post stay with the author(s) of the original article or with SisaIN Live and this post will be scrapped immediately at their request. In the post, I tried to match the English translation of names of people / institution(s) / position(s) to authentic one(s) as much as possible but, unfortunately, some of them still can be different. Original article of this post (in Korean) can be found in the link at the bottom.

Documentary film <Two Doors 두 개의 문> that premieres in Jun.21 is a reconstruction of Yongsan disaster from police SWAT team’s point of view. <SisaIN> met the directors of the film, Ms. Il-ran Kim and Ms. Ji-yoo Hong. Two directors have lived the last three years remembering the Yongsan disaster moments.

Reporter Jae-yeol Ko 고재열 기자 (scoop@sisain.co.kr)

It was a producer of radio program Ms. Hye-yoon Jeong who first introduced the documentary film <Two Doors> on <SisaIN>. In her series column ‘Today, still on a journey’, she claimed that “people’s resignation and oblivion ‘what could have been done to it?’ are truly the keys that lock the door to the truth” and suggested to remember the Yongsan disaster again and reopen the door to the truth through this movie (volume 237, ‘Who locked the door to the truth?’).

Then came another address from the cinema essayist Ms. Se-yoon Kim who relays biweekly cinema critique on <SisaIN>. Saying that <Two Doors> is revealing ‘inconvenient truth’ about Yongsan disaster, she wrote “For the first time, I use the word ‘implore’ here. I implore you. Please see <Two Doors>. Please do so. Please! Please see it first and let’s talk about it.” Sending her manuscript, she attached a memo on it again; “I strongly insist all <SisaIN> correspondents to see <Two Doors>! I also insist <SisaIN> to cover it as a main report in any form.”

ⓒ NewsIs 뉴시스
In Jan.20 2009 early morning, police SWAT team suppressed demolition area residents by force at the top of a building in a redevelopment area in Hangang-ro, Seoul.

Coerced(?) by columnists’ insist, we decided to cover <Two Doors> the third time. Seeing it, we couldn’t help doing that. In a Japanese comic book <Night Stopped Street (original title: 夕凪の街 桜の国 Yunagi no machi sakura no kuni)> about villages of nuclear bomb detonation victims, there is a scene where one of the victims’ children says “people simply want us to go away quietly.” This movie makes us to reflect on ourselves if our attitude toward victims of Yongsan disaster was also like that.

Documentary film <Two Doors> is framed around court room testimonies of police SWAT team who undertook the suppression operation then and video clip evidences. It recounts the process how victims of an excessive suppression operation were transformed into hostile protesting aggressors through the eyes and claims of ‘them’ not ‘us’ and their evidences. As have been done in movies like <Dogani> and <Broken Arrow>, it is a movie which tries to bring a case that was already ruled in the highest secular court to the court of history. <SisaIN> met directors Ms. Il-ran Kim and Ms. Ji-yoo Hong who wrote arraignment through the movie. <Two Doors> premieres in Jun.21.

The cinematic angle or the way you unfolded the story seems rather unusual.
Dir. Ji-yoo Hong (Hong): After the Yongsan disaster, there have been lots of talks among field activists in culture and art whether to approach the incident along ‘the patriot frame’ or ‘the victim frame.’ In a situation where public opinion vilified those protesting civilians who had happened to live in an area under demolition but had been victimized by government’s ruthless violence as illegal group of villains, we selected ‘the patriot frame’ and tried to justify their action as self-defense. But, this choice of patriot frame had its own fall-trap. We thought it should be figured out first who were the aggressors and who were the victims.

How did you come up with the idea to reconstruct the whole story in police’s point of view?
Dir. Il-ran Kim (Kim): We worked as members of the court-side monitoring group of the Yongsan disaster. While we were hearing testimonies of numerous witnesses, we found the part the police SWAT team members speak of two doors at the top of the building very surprising. (Note: At the top of the stairs in the building were two doors, one to the top floor where demolition residents’ watchtower was while the other one to a storage space of the building.) When asked to describe the Namildang building and the watchtower, many SWAT team members were confused about the building’s story or the story of the watchtower. They even didn’t know there were two doors. The police SWAT team members rushed to the watchtower without proper information and said they experienced hell in there. We came to think of what it was that made them so perplexed and terrified over there. Then, we came up with the idea to see everything in police’s point of view.

When did you decide to make a documentary on Yongsan disaster?
Hong: It was when the devastating ruling in the first trial came out. The result was devastating but the fact that the incident was almost forgotten was even more devastating. We wanted to publicize the incident even in a movie.

How did you reconstruct the facts?
Kim: We mainly followed the courtroom arguments. We made the issues lawyer Mr. Hyeong-tae Kim tried to dig deep stand out; When the suppression decision was delivered to the SWAT team, who made that decision, why they called in the SWAT team … There were several critical moments that the disaster could have been avoided and we tried to clear out why they had to make such decisions at those moments.

You also took time to recall how the police SWAT team came to exist and what they have accomplished.
Hong: We were curious what they had done until then. We were curious who they were that proudly paused beside armored vehicles in brand new uniforms at G20 summit convention. They worked as caretakers near the end of continued candlelight rallies in 2008 and got hyped media attention for that. Despite Yongsan disaster, they were mobilized once again in the brutal suppression of Ssangyong Motors lock-in strike. Police SWAT team which was established as a counter terrorism force for 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Olympic Games is now taking the role of attacking disgruntled demolition residents and protesters.

ⓒ Moo-young Yoon SisaIN 시사IN 윤무영
Directors of the film <Two Doors>, Ms. Il-ran Kim (right) and Ms. Ji-yoo Hong (left). Dir. Kim said, “We tried to figure out why the police had to make such decisions at every critical moment that the disaster could have been avoided.” Dir. Hong said, “We wish our movie can come to those who are the farthest away from Yongsan disaster.”

In a sense, this documentary is destined to become an unfinished record. The police is still holding out some of the key evidences.
Kim: they eventually released 3000 pages of previously undisclosed investigation material. In it, they admitted that the suppression was inadequate. In other video footage, we can see the police SWAT team who went into the watchtower was videotaping some evidence. The video footages must be in somewhere but not released yet. We want them to release those still withheld critical evidences too. Those are missing pieces in the puzzle of truth still to be looked after.

In the movie, we can see the SWAT team retreated briefly after the first suppression try and then charged in again for the second try only to find out that a fire had broken out there. They could have noticed from the first try that it was extremely dangerous in there. Why do you think they charged in for the dangerous second try?
Kim: Police SWAT team retreated at the first suppression try not because of the demolition residents’ resistance but because the top floor was giving in. We can see that the SWAT team also understood it was extremely dangerous in the watchtower from the records like police testimonies. But, they underestimated the risk thinking that they could put the situation under control right away since there was barely any resistance from the demolition residents.
Hong: Hearing the radio communication between SWAT team captain down under, we can notice that those top brass were urging additional suppression tries. The communications were like this. “Why does it take so long?” “It will be over soon.” “Would I come up there?” “No, it’s almost over here.”

In order that the court ruling which made demolition residents aggressors to hold logically, demolition residents should have thrown firebombs to the rushing in police. But no police seemed to have testified like that.
Kim: What police testified was that the demolition residents in the watchtower were suppressed without much trouble. But they also said that inside the watchtower was too dark and thick smoke in there made them hard to breathe and it was drenched with the smell of thinner. The demolition residents at first put those thinners on the second and third floors of watchtower but moved them to a corner as the floor was giving in. But, when too many police SWAT team rushed in, the floor completely gave way and they had to retreat temporarily. The court ruled based on an assumption that one of the demolition residents must have caused the fire.

The police SWAT team was acting helter-skelter in the movie, possibly out of hurried mobilization.
Hong: Police SWAT team employed two-pronged operation, attacking the demolition residents from container above and charging in from below through the stairs. When the demolition residents were throwing firebombs to those charging in from below through the stairs, we can see them moving while shielding themselves with plywood panels. I would like to ask Mr. Seok-ki Kim (then commissioner of Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency) even later if those plywood panels were official police suppression gears ….
Kim: The SWAT team had received the suppression order just two hours before firebombs appeared. So the SWAT team did not have proper firer extinguishing equipments. Just personal powder fire extinguishers. Thinners caught fire but they did not stop spraying water cannons over it. There was a testimony that they initially had wanted to use two containers but, since one of the operators had not appeared that morning, they had had to execute the operation with just one. Those mobilized in the operation did not know anything about the building structure like what floor the watchtower was on, which side the stairs were in.

Surviving families claim that aggressors and victims are interchanged.
Kim: It’ a complicated problem. It may need a retrial so that the demolition residents can be exonerated and restore their honor. However, in the frame of judicial system, they possessed firebombs and threw them below, which is outright illegal actions. The issue is that they got more than they deserved for their illegal deeds.
Hong: To apply the crime of special obstruction of official business to demolition residents, it should have been a legitimate official business. But the prosecution even could not secure the decisive evidence of fire breakout. Those six who survived the ablaze took the whole blame.

ⓒ Yonhapnews 연합뉴스
In Jan.20, 2009, the watchtower demolition residents has staged protest in at the top of Namildang building is collapsing out of fire after police suppression attack.

The demolition residents said they had warned the danger of suppression by saying that ‘All die.’ But the court interpreted this as a ‘We will kill all of you’ threat.
Kim: The son of late Mr. Sang-lim Lee who had died at the watchtower was released from temporary arrest suspension and attended his father’s funeral. He told us at that time that they could not know anything what was going on outside because of the water cannon. They even could not hear the pacification broadcasting at all.

You could have inserted the counter claims of imprisoned demolition residents ….
Kim: We thought about putting their final depositions in the movie but dropped it. Rather than speaking for them directly in the movie, we thought it would be enough to show the inconsistencies during the suppression operation and the reality of it.

The prosecution and court agreed with the police.
Hong: In a different sense, we can say the prosecution accomplished more than the police had done. They did not show off their loyalty towards the authority, they pretended to be sticking to their job and faith and still they secured heavy penalties. The judge, we guess, just read the prosecution’s written indictment instead of them, nothing more nothing less.

Many people can come to terms with the reality of Yongsan disaster through this movie.
Hong: It is rather odd that people may come in par with the reality of the incident through this movie. At that time, the incident was illuminated by minutes or by seconds. Even the conservatively biased media tried hard to deliver the facts. It is hard to understand that so many people are still unaware of the incident’s reality.
Kim: We wanted to recover a memory that does not shun anyone away and does not hurt anyone. It is not a simple logic that ‘All are victims.’ We want to say this, “Let’s see the structure of the problem.” We mainly filmed human rights documentaries like sexual minority issues before and thought a lot about how to visualize and deliver people’s feelings. Although we focused on relaying facts through police SWAT team but we also tried hard to relay their feelings as well.

It took three long years to finish the movie. The process could not have been easy.
Kim: Seeing this movie, one of my friends told me “You’ve lived the whole three years remembering this. You held on to it and it must have been very hard on you.” Thinking back, Jan.20 2009 was repeating again and again and again endlessly. We also felt of ourselves a kind of pity but, when I thought about ‘What it would be like for those surviving families? How many times would they go back to that moment?”, it made my heart heavier still.

Who do you want to see this movie in particular?
Hong: When I made a documentary on sexual minors, I wanted those who had a bias against them to see it. But for <Two Doors>, I hope everyone to see it. Everyday is full of tension until the premiere. I am concerned how to bring people to movie theatre. But, we wish our movie can come to those who are the farthest away from Yongsan disaster even if it means crossing over walls over walls.

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One comment

  1. The need for police improvement in international. I invite you to take a look at my new book and visit my blog, “Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police.” My blog is at http://improvingpolice.wordpress.com/ where I discuss these and other current police improvement issues. Good luck and may we all experience great policing!

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