Politics is one of the least respected institutions in Korea. Corruption, abuse of power and excessive partisan strife are some of the major factors that cause the public to distrust politicians.
Korean politicians also become a target of public criticism frequently because they are bent on making political issues of mass disasters. The fire at a hospital in Miryang, South Gyeongsang Province, which claimed 39 lives, is a good case in point.
As usual, senior politicians, including President Moon Jae-in and ruling and opposition party leaders, rushed to the city, visiting bereaved family members and receiving reports from relevant officials. This time too, they were faithful to the tradition of using disasters to attack their rivals.
As if often the case, the opposition opened salvo, blaming the government for the deadly fire. As with many such disasters, there were things for which officials should be held responsible. For instance, local officials ignored the illegal construction of an office pantry in the hospital, where the fire is believed to have started.
Nevertheless, it is going too far for the opposition to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Lee Nak-youn and all the other members of the Cabinet and presidential aides. It is nothing but a political offensive aimed to damage the government.
Comments from party leaders also made many frown: Hong Joon-pyo, leader of the Liberty Korea Party, argued that the fire is the result of the Moon government neglecting the people’s daily lives and focusing on political vendetta against past governments. Floor leader Kim Sung-tae insisted that the government failed to protect the people’s lives because it was preoccupied with treating Hyon Song-wol, the head of a North Korean music band who visited South Korea recently.
It is true that many believe some of the current criminal investigations of figures close to former conservative leaders Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak is politically motivated. It is also true that many question the government’s excessive appeasement of the North Korean regime over its hastily-arranged participation in the PyeongChang Olympics.
But what does a hospital fire have to do with the investigation of former leaders’ associates and relations between the two Koreas?
The ruling party’s reactions are as ill-advised as the opposition offensives. Choo Mi-ae, leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, tried to highlight that opposition leader Hong was the most recent former governor of South Gyeongsang Province. In other words, Choo was insisting that the fire broke out only because of past mismanagement of local officials.
One more reason the ruling party is sensitive to the opposition attacks over disasters is its experience with the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry that killed 304 people, 250 of them high school students.
The Sewol disaster, while seizing the nation with sorrow and anguish, developed into a major political issue, eventually pitting conservatives which at the time were in power against progressives.
The unity of progressives and opposition forces, including what is now the ruling party, became a base for the massive candlelight protests in 2016 that resulted in the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, and the consequent fall of conservative grip on politics.
Even Moon personally attributed his victory in the presidential election to bereaved family members of the Sewol disaster and their supporters, and those who participated in the candlelight demonstrations.
So it would be strange if the Moon government itself is not sensitive to the political impact of mass disasters. One good case in point is that the government put into action the “national crisis management system” for the sinking of a fishing boat last December which claimed 15 lives and both the Jecheon and Miryang blazes.
It goes without saying that authorities should do whatever they can to cope with such incidents, but few would agree that the three cases need to be dealt with as a national crisis. The government only laid the ground for excessive politicization of disasters.
Usually, reckless politicizing becomes worse when a major election approaches. We have many reasons to hope there will be no disasters before the June 13 local elections, the first major poll since Moon took office last May.