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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

[Viewpoint] Korean fury in Cambodia

The conference takes place to discuss global themes. But the conference room was full of smoke and fury generated by the two Korean delegations.

South Korean and North Korean officials toured the ancient Cambodian temple city of Angkor Wat over the weekend. The men were wowed and fervently took pictures to capture the grandeur of the 12th century Hindu architecture, no different than regular tourists.

They were among the participants in the three-day International Conference of Asian Political Parties in Phnom Penh that closed on Saturday. It was hosted by the Cambodian government.

About 300 delegates from 89 political parties of 36 countries attended the sixth such assembly. They flew to the ancient temple complex on a special flight provided by the Cambodian government.

South and North Korean delegates were among them. Representatives Kim Hyung-o and Hwang Jin-ha of the Grand National Party, Jung Jang-sun of the Democratic Party, and Lee Yong-kyung of the Creative Korea Party and their aides went on the trip.

Four came along in the North Korean delegation, including deputy secretary of the Workers’ Party’s international department, Park Geun, though he was without his boss, Kim Young-il, secretary of the international department of the Workers’ Party, who bowed out citing personal reasons.

Delegates from the two Koreas exchanged fiery words and icy looks over North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island throughout the conference. They were hardly in a mood to enjoy a leisurely tour. They had their backs to each other and avoided contact during lunch.

Out of professional obligation, I attempted conversing with North Korean delegates. I was able to ask deputy secretary Park a couple of questions.

Journalist: “South Koreans are outraged by North Korea’s attack. They aren’t likely to tolerate it if North Korea strikes again.”

Park: “It is the South that provoked us first. We warned several times that we will strike if South Korea tests artillery around the Yeonpyeong area. We issued a warning on the morning of the event [the attack]. But South Koreans ignored us and went on with their fire drill. We merely acted on our words.”

Journalist: “Still, how could you have fired on an island populated with civilians? That is a ruthless attack that cannot be excused whatsoever. Civilians died in the attack.”

Park: “We targeted where the fire came from. We regret civilian deaths, but it is the South Koreans who are using civilians as human shields near a military base.”

Journalist: “Civilians were there for construction work near the base. The artillery shells fell on civilian homes far from the military base. What you say does not make sense.”

Then Park lashed out at the United States, arguing that the South is being fooled by the U.S., which is simply trying to bring a nuclear-armed warship to the Yellow Sea to contain China. He then went on with the North’s typical claim that South Korea is innately dependent on external powers before suddenly stopping himself.

South Korea started the rhetorical fire at North Korea during the conference. Former National Assembly Speaker Kim strongly condemned the Yeonpyeong attack. Kim commented on the Yeonpyeong event in his opening remarks while his North Korean counterpart, Kim Young-il, lashed back during an afternoon address, devoting half of his speech to condemn South Korea and the U.S.

In the first bout of the verbal war, North Korea walked off with a curl of the lip. On the second day, Representative Hwang used the podium to lambaste North Korea. His speech was mostly devoted to attacking North Korea, reciting the trajectory of the North’s provocations from the presidential assassination attempt in 1968 to the torpedo attack on the Cheonan in March. North Koreans remained silent.

The forum was established a decade ago to promote exchanges and cooperation among Asian countries of different ideologies and cultures to enhance mutual understanding and trust, as well as contributing to peace and co-prosperity in the region.

The conference takes place in different cities every one or two years to discuss global and regional themes of poverty, development, human rights, energy, resources, the environment and climate change.

But instead of a series of sincere debates, the conference room was full of smoke and fury generated by the two Korean delegations. They may have raised consciousness among participants of heightened regional tension, but at the same time were disrespectful of the host country and other members as well as the norms and practices of international forums.

North Korea is entirely blamed for the bombardment of Yeonpyeong. The Phnom Penh declaration contained words of indirect condemnation of North Korea’s provocation. North Korean delegates nevertheless enjoyed the tour of Angkor Wat. They must have grown immune to words of censure.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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Assembly President Nixes Separate Bridge Inquiry

National Assembly President Heng Samrin on Tuesday denied an opposition party request that parliament establish a special commission to investigate the deadly Nov. 22 bridge stampede.

A government committee determined the stampede, which killed 353 people and injured nearly 400, was an accident due to panic on the crowded Diamond Bridge.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said in days following the disaster that no officials would be held responsible for what he called a “joint mistake” in an unforeseeable event.

But opposition lawmakers said the National Assembly should establish an investigation of its own, a request Heng Samrin said was “not a necessity.”

Son Chhay, a lawmaker for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, who signed the request with two other parliamentarians, said the denial showed “non-responsibility by the National Assembly.”

“It is regretful, but we will not give up on our investigation,” he said. “We will work closely with some non-governmental organizations to independently investigate the real cause and information on the deadly incident, and push the government to fine government officials who lacked responsibility.”

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights, an independent organziation, has said it will pursue its own investigation into the tragedy.

Speaking on “Hello VOA” Monday night, Kimsour Phirith, another lawmaker for the opposition, said the government findings were not enough.

“This was not a natural disaster like a tsunami or volcano eruption, where we were not able to know it in advance,” he said.

“Responsible officials,” he said, should be held accountable through resignations or suspensions.

However, Cheam Yiep, a National Assembly member for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said the government investigators had “done their job to handle the problem.”

“If we set up a committee, we don’t know what to do,” he said. “It is not our expertise.”

He suggested that the legislative body bring government representatives to answer questions, a process Kimsour Phirith said had proven ineffective in the past.

“Instead of coming to answer questions, they just come to read their answers and ignore the questions,” he said.
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Daughter Sought ‘Fun’ Festival Before Bridge Tragedy

It has been two weeks since Kim Sineng lost her daughter, Sok Lai Eng.

“She always used sweet words with her mother, her family,” Kim Sineng said, sitting on a wooden bed in a house near the Kandal province garment factory where her daughter worked. “She would take care of me when I was sick. She wanted me to wear clothes like a rich person. She said she would be happy to see me where clothes like this.”

Sok Lai Eng was 23, the third of six children, and she had left her job as a waitress in Kampot province for work in the garment factory in Kandal. Like millions of Cambodians, she had gone to Phnom Penh to watch the Water Festival. Like thousands of others, she had become trapped on Diamond Bridge on the night of Nov. 22. And like 352 others, she died on the bridge, when the throng became so packed that revelers panicked and stampeded.

Her mother said Sok Lai Eng had taken the job to help reduce the family’s debt and help them build a new house. She had $6 in her pocket when she left for the Water Festival. She died alongside one of her friends on bridge.

“She said her last words before going out, that she wanted to hear happy words,” her mother said, as tears ran down her sun-darkened face. “And she asked me permission to go to visit the Water Festival to have fun. I reminded her to be careful because it was crowded, and I wouldn’t be able to help her if anything happened.”

Sok Lai Eng had four sisters and one brother. The family relies on silk weaving to make a living, but with the silk market in decline, her mother had sent her to work as a waitress in Kampot and then to joint two older sisters in the Kandal factory. None of her sisters had went to school beyond 10th grade, while her younger brother has continued study in public school.

Kim Sineng said she lost touch with her daughter around 7 pm, and that night received a phone call saying she was missing. Kim Sineng spent hours searching the hospitals of Phnom Penh, as casualties continued to rise and the scope of the disaster unfolded. There were so many dead, she could not find her daughter.

“I prayed to Buddha, saying that if my daughter was really dead, I should find her corpse, because I didn’t see her in two or three hospitals,” said Kim Sineng, whose eyes have become rimmed in red from constant crying. “Then I found her and I prayed again to bring her home.”

The family has now received about $7,000 of at least $12,000 expected from payments from the government, donors and others.

“Even if I received five times the money, it could not buy the soul of my daughter,” said Mam Chha, Sok Lai Eng’s father. “But we can’t say anything because it was an accident. And it is our wish that they should be well-prepared for the next time."
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