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Politics encroaches on mourning for victims of Itaewon tragedy

Participants hold candles and placards at a protest organized to commemorate victims who died in the Itaewon crowd crush, near Seoul City Hall in central Seoul on Saturday, the final day of the weeklong national mourning period. (Yonhap)
Participants hold candles and placards at a protest organized to commemorate victims who died in the Itaewon crowd crush, near Seoul City Hall in central Seoul on Saturday, the final day of the weeklong national mourning period. (Yonhap)

Candlelight vigils honoring the 156 people killed in the Itaewon crowd surge were held across South Korea over the weekend, with some gathering thousands of people.

While the events were to commemorate the dead, some participants held signs calling for President Yoon Suk-yeol to step down and appeared focused on delivering a rebuke to the current administration.

On Saturday, thousands of people gathered in central Seoul, paying tribute to the Itaewon victims and clutching white candles. Contrasting the white candles were visible black signs demanding that Yoon step down.

Another, smaller rally, organized by young members of minor opposition parties and student groups on Thursday marched from Itaewon Station to the presidential office, holding signs reading "(the tragedy) could have been prevented. The state was absent."

With probes underway to clarify any faults in the measures prior to and during the crowd crush, some expressed concerns about the gatherings and whether they may accentuate the political confrontations instead.

"Mourning is an act of human instinct to share emotions. Deviating from the essence (of mourning) and politicizing the tragic accident is a transgression of humanism," said Lee, a 35-year-old man who requested anonymity.

Some participants however, refuted such view.

"This is not your fault. Do not blame yourself," Jang Hoon, father of a student who died in the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking who heads a public safety research group, said at Saturday's vigil.

"(The victims) did not die because they went to play. (They) died due to the faults of those who did not protect the people."

Some others also took issue with civic groups behind the vigils.

"In case of the civic group Candlelight Action, it had held candlelight protests every week, for months, holding onto several political slogans against the government, including Yoon's resignation. This time, the group combined the existing slogan with the commemoration of victims from the tragic accident in Itaewon,” said Koo Jeong-woo, a sociology professor at Sungkyunkwan University.

According to Koo, such moves of “bridging its criticism against Yoon and the accident” will only make people become increasingly cynical about politics and escalate their aversion to politics further.

The ruling party, for their part, has been vocal in denouncing the attack on Yoon.

Rep. Kwon Seong-dong of People Power Party, criticized that the civic groups are redirecting the commemoration into an apparent attack on Yoon. Kwon said the civic groups are “abusing tragedy of the others for their political fight (against the government).”

Kwon wrote in a Facebook post, “for protestors who uses death of others for their political resources, tragedy of others is (their) industry, candlelight vigils are (their) business and instigation is (their) occupation.”

Meanwhile, the main opposition party currently plans to request for inspection of the administration.

The ruling party, however, has rejected the main opposition party’s request for inspection, arguing that investigation into the disaster should come first -- including questions regarding former head of the Yongsan Police Station Lee Im-jae, who is accused of arriving belatedly at the scene of the incident and also delaying briefings to higher-ups.

The ruling party also accused the main opposition party of spreading fake news, which claim the Itaewon area suffered a shortage of riot police, since the riot police were already mobilized for reasons related to the relocation of the presidential office and the presidential convoy.



By Shim Woo-hyun (ws@heraldcorp.com)
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