Disputes have intensified over the disclosure of the list of Itaewon tragedy victims, with related media outlets, Catholic priest groups and political parties engaged in politicizing the Oct. 29 crowd crush that killed at least 158.
The controversy was sparked when two progressive online media outlets released a list of 155 people who died in the tragedy on their websites Monday. The names of 10 victims were removed after their families sent complaints to the outlets in question.
It is deeply regrettable that the names of the victims were made public online without the consent of their family members, as it is widely seen as inappropriate in consideration of the gravity of the incident and its tragic aspect that requires the media to handle the matter with respect and caution.
Worse, the list was sent to the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice, a group of progressive Catholic priests, which held a memorial mass for the victims of the Itaewon tragedy on Monday and the group’s chief Father Kim Young-sik read the names of the victims one by one.
The media outlet claimed that disclosing the names of the victims contributes to “true condolences,” and Kim said in a radio interview Monday that praying by saying the names of saints and the deceased are Catholic prayer rituals.
Of course, there are some cases in which some of the names of the victims in a disaster and their photos are revealed in the media and at memorial altars, and Catholic priests would call out the names of the victims who died in a disaster. But these exceptional cases are allowed in a limited way only if the bereaved families offer their consent.
However, as the media outlet that revealed the names publicly acknowledged, it did not follow the essential procedure of obtaining prior consent. It removed some of the names after receiving complaints from their families, but this belated act cannot justify the underlying folly of the disclosure.
As critics pointed out, such sudden disclosure could deal secondary damage to the bereaved who are already struggling with the sadness after losing their loved ones.
There is also a legal issue. Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said the disclosure could become a legal problem as it goes against the wishes of the victims’ families. A lawyer group also issued a statement calling for setting up a policy to keep the names of the victims undisclosed without the consent of their families.
It should be also noted the disclosure came after Lee Jae-myung, the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea leader, said on Nov. 9 that the list of victims should be made public. Lee’s logic is that disclosing the names of the victims would allow people to properly mourn their deaths.
But it is questionable how such irresponsible disclosure could lead to proper mourning. Furthermore, the disclosure itself sparked a wave of conflicts and division that appear to follow the familiar pattern of meaningless politicizing overtaking major incidents.
Lee’s argument unleashed opposition and criticism even within the Democratic Party and from the minor opposition Justice Party, not to mention vehement complaints from the ruling People Power Party.
The ruling party is now slamming both the disclosure and the Democratic Party, which denied its involvement with the release of the list. Nonetheless, the list of the victims of the Itaewon tragedy has already become a divisive political issue that lays bare the ugly side of Korean politics.
There is no question that the government should do its part by conducting a thorough investigation to hold those responsible accountable for the disaster and offer proper measures for the bereaved. Neither the disclosure of the list without consent nor the politicizing of the disaster is the proper way to mourn the victims.