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[Editorial] Wrong words and deeds

Byeon insults deceased temp, belittles tenants; Lee assaults taxi driver for waking him up

The land minister nominee and vice justice minister face public censure over their past words and deeds that stray far from common sense.

In 2016, a 19-year-old temporary worker was killed by a subway train while repairing a safety door on the platform at Guui Station in Seoul. His death brought shock and grief across the nation.

In the same year, then Seoul Housing & Communities Corp. CEO Byeon Chang-heum, now the land minister nominee, presided over a meeting on construction safety.

“In fact, the incident was nothing serious. If he (the victim) had paid a little more attention, nothing would have happened,” he said in the meeting.

His words are an insult not only to the young man, but also to the many people who laid flowers and attached messages to the safety door, praying for the deceased.

His remarks also ignore a myriad of structural problems, including the subway operator‘s excessive cost-saving practices and poor working conditions for temporary workers.

In the meeting, Byeon said about the idea of share-house tenants sharing a restaurant: “Some people may dislike eating together with some others. Poor people eat at home. Will they eat out if they are in their right mind?”

Share houses are a type of public rental home supplied by the corporation for non-homeowners in Seoul.

He may have remarked to the effect that share house tenants may feel uncomfortable with eating together in a shared restaurant. But his words belittle and discriminate against tenants. They are inappropriate for someone nominated as land minister by the Moon Jae-in administration, which seeks to supply new housing mainly through public rental apartments.

Byeon also is at the center of controversy over the corporation’s awarding of 25 contracts to supply small solar power stations to a company run by a pro-Moon figure.

As controversies mounted, he apologized, but doubts about his sincerity are unlikely to disappear quickly.

It was belatedly discovered that Vice Justice Minister Lee Yong-gu had assaulted a taxi driver early last month for waking him up at his destination. Lee reportedly fell asleep because he was drunk.

The taxi driver told police officers on the scene that “the passenger cursed, grabbed me by the collar and used violence.”

The passenger was Vice Justice Minister Lee Yong-gu, who was a lawyer at the time.

Police did not book the assailant, however, citing that the taxi driver objected to punishment, and closed the case as simple assault. Simple assault is an offense that cannot be punished if the victim does not want the attacker to be punished. This incident exposes an aspect of Lee’s bad personality, but more concerning is the way the police handled the incident.

Questions have been raised over whether police buried the case intentionally after identifying the attacker, or if they followed instructions from above. Lee served as chief of the legal affairs bureau of the Justice Ministry from August 2017 to April 2020. Then he resumed practicing as a lawyer before being nominated as vice justice minister on Dec. 2.

Police said they could not book the assailant because the driver was “not driving” his car at the time of the incident.

But the Act on Aggravated Punishment for Specific Crimes, revised in 2015, stipulates that any person who uses violence against or threatens a driver shall be jailed for up to five years or fined up to 20 million won ($18,200). The act includes cases where a driver temporarily stops his or her vehicle in order for passengers to board or alight. Furthermore, an offense subject to the act must be punished regardless of the victim’s objection to the penalty. Police either lied or refused to admit their faults.

Any person with common sense and decency would never cause such an incident. It brings shame on the No. 2 in the Justice Ministry. Lee should clarify the incident, apologize and take responsibility.

It is doubtful if Byeon or Lee are qualified to serve as high-ranking officials.