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Democratic Party bid to post identities of Itaewon victims fuels backlash

Flowers are laid for the victims of the Halloween crowd crush outside the Itaewon subway station on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Flowers are laid for the victims of the Halloween crowd crush outside the Itaewon subway station on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

A fresh row has erupted following a recent expose of the Democratic Party of Korea’s apparent bid to publish the identities of the victims of the fatal Halloween crowd crush in Itaewon, Seoul. 

While the Democratic Party argued that the victims needed to be remembered publicly, critics said respect for privacy should come before the public’s right to know.

In a text message conversation that was leaked to the press, the deputy head of the Democratic Party-run think tank told Rep. Moon Jin-seok: “Get in touch with the families or something. Do whatever it takes to get a hold of the full list of the victims, their photos and profile details.”

The messages were spotted by press cameras as the Democratic Party lawmaker was checking his mobile phone during Monday’s National Assembly grilling of the Seoul mayor and the police chief about their response to the Itaewon incident.

“We still don’t have the moving stories of the victims,” the party think tank’s deputy head was seen as saying in the messages.

“The names and the photos of the victims of the disaster should be made public. They should already have been all over the news by now.”

Moon, the head of the Democratic Party’s strategic planning committee, told reporters the next day that the leaked messages belonged to a “private conversation,” and that he was “merely reading” the messages that were sent to him.

“That was just one person’s opinion, and I wish to make it clear that I do not approve of the opinion that was shared with me,” he said.

But the Democratic Party leadership on Wednesday stood by what was disclosed in Monday’s leak, calling on the administration to post the names of all of the victims as well as their photographs.

“In what part of the world do people grieve without knowing whom they are grieving for?” said the party’s chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung. “I have heard parents demanding that the name and the face of their son not be hidden,” he claimed.

The lawmakers of the Democratic Party’s fact-finding group said in a joint statement that they would be “willing to fight to bring this administration down if that is what it takes to find justice for the victims,” calling for setting up an “independent, nonpartisan probe” into what happened in Itaewon.

The ruling People Power Party said in response that the opposition was “leaving the victims and their families out” in moving forward with the discussion.

“We are hearing a lot about what the Democratic Party thinks ought to be done, not the bereaved families,” it said. 

The People Power Party also hit back at the accusation that the administration was deliberately withholding the names and the information of the victims. “It is not known if there is consent,” it said.

On the Democratic Party’s push to have the victims identified, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea’s chairperson Song Doo-hwan told lawmakers that as the disaster has become “very visible to the public,” the public “has the right to know to a certain extent.”

“But rights to privacy must come first,” he said.

Seoul Metropolitan Council member Lee Jong-bae on this day filed a petition with the National Human Rights Commission, asking the human rights watchdog to recommend against lawmakers publishing the names or other personal details of the victims.

He said that the decision should wait until deliberation by the National Human Rights Commission is concluded.

He then accused “some within the Democratic Party” of “insensitive political strategizing,” saying that they were displaying “shocking disregard for the grieving families.”

Lee Tae-ho, an executive at the progressive civil activist group People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, told The Korea Herald that it was “up to the families” to decide whether to disclose information about their passed loved ones.

“It is not a political party’s call to make,” said Lee, who has worked with victims of mass casualty events, including the Sewol ferry sinking in 2014 that left 304 missing or dead, mostly high school students.

He said that it was the government’s job to provide a channel for communication among the victims and the families, and also to listen to them about how they wish to grieve.

“With Sewol, there was already a community (of victims’ families) because they were parents of kids who went to the same school,” he said. “But that’s not the case with Itaewon. It’s hard for the families of 156 individuals to get together.”

The families of the Itaewon victims are planning to meet for the first time, according to attorney Yang Hong-seok.

“Unless the families decide to come forward themselves, I think it’s best to respect their privacy and not subject them to unsolicited public attention,” said Yang, who is representing some of the families, in a phone call with The Korea Herald.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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