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It’s been days since Tuesday when six people, including a police officer, were killed by a fire that erupted suddenly atop a five-story building in Yongsan, the center of Seoul. Former residents were protesting against the redevelopment plan for merely 25 hours when they were cornered inside a makeshift watchtower on the roof by combined forces of water cannons, riot police, the special forces and enforcers hired by the coalition company (supported by witness accounts and a recorded police transmission). Police records indicate that they were aware of the fact that the residents kept large quantities of paint thinners in the watchtower to fend of attacks by making molotov cocktails; yet they pushed on what was later criticized as a hasty, rash and highly dangerous operation. From what the prosecutor’s office claims was an ignited molotov cocktail,  a fire erupted on the tiny watchtower, spreading quickly due to wet surface and clothing soaked from the water cannons, literally burning the victims to death and injuring many. The police gathered additional criticism when autopsies were performed on the identified bodies without the permission of family members. However, much of the anger is vented towards the already unpopular  government with the M.Ps of the ruling Grand National Party divulging in inappropriate and inconsiderate comments such as “They shouldn’t have had paint thinners in the first place” “I hope this will be a chance to end the cycle of violent protesting” and “First and foremost we must concentrate on uncovering the truth and condemning the violent protestors who are responsible (five residents were arrested).”  The president has yet to disclose any official apologies or attempt to reprimand the man directly responsible for assigning the operation–Yongsan Police Station chief Kim Seok-ki, also appointed as the next commissioner general of the National Police Agency.

Since the prsidency of Lee Myung-bak, the quality of democracy in South Korea has deteriorated sharply and this tragedy marks the extreme heights–or more precisely the lows–of the consequences when a political philosophy values anything–whether it be law and order or economic development–over the very basic foundation of our existence, human rights. Apallingly enough the government has failed even in the most artificial level to convey any form of believable respect and condolences towards the precious human lives lost in the incident,  instead attempting to use the tragedy as a chance to expand and strengthen authority and control at the expense of spitting on graves and adding salt to injuries. The “problem” of Yongsan, the “reponsibilities (“they had it coming”),” the “truth”–the problem is actually very simple: PEOPLE DIED, STUPID!!!

And whatever awaits the fate of the regime after the Lunar New Year holiday ends and people take to the streets on a candlelight vigil scheduled on the 31st–ironically in Chongyechon, the artificial stream constructed by President Lee when he was mayor of Seoul–whatever happens then, they had it coming.

One South Korean Egloos blogger once wrote that she simply cannot comprehend the fact that contemporary Chinese staunchly believe and stand by their government when it comes to Tibet-even in this time of highly advanced  information technology. “Yes, I know the Korean government, too,  enforced the same type of control and propaganda over the people decades ago. But the Chinese have no right to make excuses. They can go abroad, they’re not like us back then.” Was her claim. In other words, exposure to outside perspectives and media (whether through the internet or going overseas) should be enough to “correct” an individual’s political standpoint. If she allowed non-Egloos bloggers to comment or if I wasn’t interested in preserving our mutual friendship I would have  replied, “Sorry, but I can’t agree with that. (and, hey, even the internet is censored in China.)” I am not trying to downplay the effects informational and personal exposure/contact with different perspectives can have; in fact, my years in Canada have affected me in terms of how I came to view human rights and social justice. I would have acquired a different viewpoint if I’d stayed in South Korea. At the same time, the experience is precisely why I understand changing ideas and thoughts, or trying to defy a concept or myth long imprinted in one’s mind is extremely difficult and occasionally painful-which is why people aren’t easily subject to change. Especially if the issue is a highly politicized one.

Before discussing overseas Chinese and Tibet, let me introduce a family account. This involves my parents, who temporarily resided in Illinois in the early 90s.  Once, they went to a screening held by one of the local Korean communities, a club based on the Jeolla province. Mother recalls being surprised that not only Koreans, but also some American professors and students showed up as well. The film was a documentary about the 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement in Jeolla province,  showing graphic footage of civilians brutally beaten, arrested, and gunned down by the army and explaining how the government manipulated the Korean people from learning the truth. The incident was covered up by the then-military regime and distorted as a Communist rebellion by the media. This “myth” was so successful that many people, even now, believe the uprising was a Communist conspiracy and is one of the basis of deep inter-regional hatred and prejudice yet pervasive in South Korea.  Now after the screening, every Korean at the screening was completely taken aback by shock, shame, and to mask it, anger. As foreign students or immigrants they are always aware of their minority status, are socially vulnerable or feel victimized, and when attacked, are incliend to react aggresively as means of defense. Even a well-to-do, healthy, heterosexual white male might feel uneasy when a non-Western country he resides constantly depicts white men as criminals. Added to the aggressive protectionism is of course the political factor; how would you feel, if you’re suddenly told your country (or maybe somebody or some organization you dearly love, respect, or follow) did something extremely evil, like slaughtering people and doing everything to cover it up? And I mean totally out of the blue; you’re only informed of it now. I think most people will shut it out, deny it, declare the informer a liar or traitor, no matter the amount of solid evidence. The same thing happened when survivors of the Holocaust first came out with their accounts; the truth was just too terrifying to handle so many tried to deny it ever happened. Denial is an extremely powerful defence mechanism, and combined with effective political propaganda or lack of political interest can produce social unity and shared consciousness functioning upon a common social myth, and havily fueled by hatred. The point is that overseas Chinese are not so different from overseas Koreans in that Illinois screening room.

Of course, this does not mean that the truth will be forever buried; now everybody (sane enough) acknowledges the Holocaust, and the victims of sexual slavery in the Pacific War (known as the euphemism “comfort women”)  are finally gaining recognition. Last week 29 dissidents in China spoke out against the government’s propaganda campaign. Small yet significant movements as such can shape an environment where individuals are less afraid to consider alternative or conflicting perspectives. That’s where the possibility of change begins.