By Benjamin M. Kim
During the first week of January, National Assembly members from the Democratic Party scuffled violently with security guards in parliament as security guards attempted to end their sit-in protest, which had paralyzed the country's parliament for weeks over several controversial pieces of legislation.
More that 100 people were injured in the long scuffle that broke out when some 200 guards began removing lawmakers by force. The chaos eventually ended two weeks ago, as the ruling Grand National Party accepted several demands from the opposition party.
Even though the violent confrontation was over, however, it showed us many problems of contemporary Korean democracy, where conversations, mediation and majority rule have no power in front of stubbornness, violent language and politicians' strong arm.
Two weeks later, on Jan. 20, a fire broke out on one of the buildings in the Yongsan area, where a demonstration was being held by tenants protesting against the government's redevelopment plan for the area. The incident killed six people, including one policeman, showing that the parliament is not the only place that needs to be reformed in Korea.
This case aroused enormous criticism that police action was careless and too brutal. Seoul Police Chief Kim Seok-ki ordered a SWAT team to enter the building by lifting a container box filled with policemen on top of the building with a crane, and six people died in a blaze as a consequence.
Witnesses said that one Molotov cocktail thrown in the direction of police hit the water from a police water cannon and fell onto the surface of the building's roof, igniting the flammable liquid. However, the real problem of this case is not the issue of who caused the fire but the hasty action of police and the government's policy on redevelopment plan compensation.
First, police never attempted to talk to protesters but went in for a forced removal just 25 hours after the protest began. Though armed with Molotov cocktails and liquid petroleum gas tanks, protesters were surprised and helpless in the face of a police operation. The police knew that the protesters were armed with flammable liquids, but reacted carelessly by dispersing and arresting those who were involved in the illegal demonstration, which could have been resolved easily through dialogue, as the protesters were locked in a building without a food supply. I really cannot understand why the SWAT team, meant to assist and protect the people from threats of terror and crime, was mobilized, leading to the deaths of six people.
Secondly, the government inner city redevelopment plan does not provide the tenants or the building owners a clear and appropriate alternative place to stay near where they used to live. People who reside in an area planned for redevelopment need to be compensated fully.
However, many tenants are not given either an apartment or enough money to afford one in the area from which they are evicted, forcing families to move unwillingly to another neighborhood they can afford to live in, bringing many negative changes, such as children's school transfers and job searches for grown-ups. If this issue is not solved, there will be second and third accidents like this one.
On Jan. 22, the Bank of Korea stated that the Korean economy contracted by 5.6 percent in the last quarter of 2008 from three months earlier; it was the sharpest fall since the Asian financial crisis of 1997. As this figure indicates, most Koreans are having a hard time; those who were evicted from their houses as a result of government policies are having even harder times.
No matter what kind of excuses the police department is giving to justify its decisions, it seems very clear to me that the police should have had a second thought before the attack. Furthermore, members of parliament should stop fighting against each other and come up with a realistic compensation plan for the victims of this incident and those who will be moved away from their beloved neighborhoods.
The writer is a dual-degree student at the University of Delaware and Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He can be reached at email@example.com.