South Korean documentary film “Two Doors” reminds me again of how terrible and infuriating the Yongsan Tragedy was. In the early morning of January 19th, 2009, the police attempted to suppress a group of evictees who simply demanded fair treatment, but the excessive use of force by the police led to a horrific incident at the building occupied by the evictees for their desperate demonstration, and the incident resulted in the death of 5 evictees and one police officer. While it was apparent that the police were responsible for this disastrous outcome in one way or another, police authorities were ready to cover up their fault, and they were in turn backed by the government as well as the justice system.
While showing us how thing went quite wrong on that day, the documentary doles out the background information bit by bit for our understanding of a big social/political picture surrounding the Yongsan Tragedy. After the redevelopment boom of several big areas in Yongsan district was initiated in 2003, numerous people living and working there had to be relocated to somewhere else, but they usually did not get enough financial compensation for that, and that was why some of these people came to do their defiant demonstration on that building on January 18th, 2009.
As shown from the opening scene of the documentary, President Lee Myung-bak made it clear to everyone that his government would not tolerate any illegal gathering or demonstration in public. In the view of his government, what was happening in Yongsan on that day was an illegal public activity which should be suppressed as soon as possible for the economic good of the country, and a police SWAT team was swiftly brought to the demonstration site on the very next day.
Through a number of raw video footage clips shot by reporters and police officers during the demonstration, the documentary makes a good point on how incompetently and recklessly the police handled the circumstance. While the evictees kept their defiant position at their watchtower built on the rooftop of the building, the police did not consider any possible negotiation with the evictees, and they did not even consider the potential dangers in the situation. It was apparent that the evictees had a considerable stash of handmade firebombs made from paint thinners, but police authorities ordered the immediate suppression of the evictees nonetheless, and they did not even block the surrounding area for public safety when the operation eventually began at 6:00 AM, January 19th.
Deftly juxtaposing video footage clips with the testimonies from various people who were there during that time, the documentary gives us an indirect but vivid glimpse into the following chaos. When police officers and hired goons tried to enter the building around 7:00 AM, there were already clear signs of danger, but they did not reconsider their tactic at all, and then they began their second attempt at AM 7:18. Around 2 minutes later, the evictees’ watchtower was on fire for some unknown reason, and the situation soon became irreversible after that fateful point.
As the resulting incident shocked the whole nation during several days, the police and the government tried to save their position by any means necessary. Once the investigation on the incident was hurriedly done, some of surviving evictees were subsequently sent to a trial, but nobody in the police was investigated or charged for any misconduct in the incident, and the government even tried to divert the media attention from the incident through the sensational news about a serial killer.
The following trial was not so fair from the beginning. Not so surprisingly, the police were pretty uncooperative to say the least, and they did not even fully provide their investigation record to the defendants’ lawyers. In case of the prosecutor and the judge presiding over the trial, they were already on the side of the police and the government, and we are not so surprised to learn later that both of them received a significant political reward after they got the defendants sentenced to several years of incarceration in the end.
While its sympathy clearly lies on the side of the evictees, the documentary also shows considerable empathy toward those police officers put into the building. As several interviewees in the documentary point out, those police officers suffered lots of traumas just like evictees during that chaotic and hellish moment, and that aspect is exemplified well by a harrowing written testimony from one police officer who participated in the suppression of the evictees.
Although more than 5 years have passed since it came out to South Korean audiences in 2012, “Two Doors” remains as effective as intended by its directors Hong Ji-you and Kim Il-rhan, who did a commendable job of making a calm but sobering presentation of their subject. After the documentary was released in South Korea, things only became worse as Park Geun-hye got elected as the new President of South Korea in late 2012, and I and many other South Korean witnessed more social injustices which were as infuriating as the Yongsan Tragedy. After the historic impeachment of Park Geun-hye and the following election of President Moon Jae-in, we came to have some hope and there have indeed been some considerable changes, but the Yongsan Tragedy is still left without any clear closure, and the documentary powerfully demonstrates that to its audiences.