The Korea Herald


[Reporter's Notebook] Bereaved families do not deserve abuse

Outside of courtroom that rejected impeachment motion, grieving families of Itaewon tragedy meet extremists' derision

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : July 27, 2023 - 15:49

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Bereaved families of victims who died in the 2022 crowd crush in Itaewon in Yongsan-gu, Seoul are in grief after the Constitutional Court rejected the impeachment motion of Safety Minister Lee Sang-min on Tuesday. (Yonhap) Bereaved families of victims who died in the 2022 crowd crush in Itaewon in Yongsan-gu, Seoul are in grief after the Constitutional Court rejected the impeachment motion of Safety Minister Lee Sang-min on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

Fuming with rage and shedding tears were bereaved family members of victims in the deadly Halloween crowd crush in Itaewon last year, following the Constitutional Court's verdict Tuesday that cleared Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min of legal accountability for the incident.

An unidentified man's yelling sparked an outcry from the bereaved family members, who flocked to the crowded street in front of the court as they were attempting to speak to the press. Tuesday marked 270 days since the tragedy.

The man shouted at the group, "'Itaewon' was orchestrated by North Korea." It seemed unclear which incident he was referring to -- the Itaewon crowd crush that killed 159 people, or the protests by bereaved family members in Itaewon calling for Lee's impeachment.

Infuriated, some of the bereaved family members broke away from the group and dashed over to the man. One of them soon collapsed in sobs on the pavement, which was radiating with the summer heat.

The scuffle intensified a couple of minutes later, as a black van passed by those reeling from grief and its driver derisively sang the line, "On such a wonderful day, on such a wonderful day," of "In the Flower Garden" through a loudspeaker.

Soon, an individual known to be a YouTuber smashed into the van, wildly swinging a camera stand. Pandemonium followed as the bereaved family members swarmed around the van and scores of police officers tried to stop them.

Another bereaved family member fainted after being pushed by the crowd at the scene. She was one of two people sent to the hospital, out of the 30 bereaved family members there. The incident stopped the press conference for 20 minutes while the remaining family members regained composure.

A spokesperson for the bereaved families said that they are not considering taking legal action against the instigators.

Insults toward the bereaved families, however, continued online.

One commenter wrote on Naver News: "The entire gang of bereaved families of the Itaewon incident should be removed from society. Those who are truly in grief would never act politically..."

Far-right online community Ilbe Storehouse went further to the extreme, attempting to link the Itaewon tragedy to North Korea, "(These families) got infuriated because the truth about the North Korean puppet regime's involvement has been laid bare."

Little has changed in Korea in the past few years. Due to lenient punishment, there is a tendency among some to provoke the bereaved families of victims of major disasters -- such as the deadly capsizing of the Sewol ferry in 2014 -- with malicious comments or rumors.

In a high-profile case, an online user on Ilbe Storehouse in his 20s surnamed Kim was sentenced to four months in prison in 2015 for likening the deceased Sewol ferry sinking victims -- most of whom were high school students on a field trip -- to "fishcakes" with mushy flesh. His post read, "I've made a friend," with a photo of himself clad in the school uniform worn by the victims, holding a fishcake skewer. The ruling did not stop Ilbe online users from derisively referring to the victims as fishcakes.

Public officials are also no exception to this tendency. For example, former conservative lawmaker Cha Myong-jin was given a suspended prison sentence in June for commenting online in 2019 that the bereaved families of the Sewol victims were taking advantage of the sympathy toward their dead children and that they never let go of the past.

Not all of the instigators of such harassment faced criminal punishment. The prosecution in 2019 decided not to indict far-right online users for gorging themselves on food next to bereaved family members of the Sewol ferry disaster victims who were on a hunger strike, four years after it happened.

Bereaved families of the Itaewon tragedy victims believed Tuesday's loss in the legal battle not only salvaged the safety minister, but also served to enable extremists to continue their harassment of them.

"As you've witnessed, there are people who even make fun of victims and bereaved families, much less sympathize with our loss," said Lee Jeong-min, a bereaved family member of an Itaewon tragedy victim, in a press conference after the scuffle came to an end.

"I've come to think that more and more people will jump on that bandwagon, ... unless those in power face consequences for their misbehavior. This dooms those in unfortunate circumstances to become even more unfortunate."

The Constitutional Court's ruling on Tuesday obviously disappointed the bereaved families, as they wanted to hold the minister accountable.

However, this disappointment is not based on any political opportunism. The impeachment motion was rammed through the court by the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, which is at loggerheads with the conservative ruling People Power Party in a polarized political climate.

The families do not deserve such insulting treatment or accusations, as they would have demanded justice regardless of which party was responsible. No one in the country has the right to gauge the depth of their sadness, to leave them to grieve alone or to force them to end their visceral pain.