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Lawmakers slam lack of police presence at Halloween disaster

Police unlikely to seek charges against safety minister, Seoul mayor

By Kim Arin, Son Ji-hyoung

Published : Jan. 4, 2023 - 18:30

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Police officers speak at Wednesday’s hearing in the National Assembly investigation of the Halloween crowd disaster in Itaewon on Oct. 29 last year. (Yonhap) Police officers speak at Wednesday’s hearing in the National Assembly investigation of the Halloween crowd disaster in Itaewon on Oct. 29 last year. (Yonhap)

Police chiefs said they did not know about the Halloween crowd disaster at Itaewon in Seoul’s Yongsan as it was unfolding on the night of Oct. 29 last year, appearing as witnesses at a National Assembly hearing on Wednesday.

At the hearing, the police chiefs and senior officers of Seoul, Yongsan and the national police were grilled about their lack of presence on the night of the incident, leaving the fire department to respond by itself.

“I wasn’t briefed or contacted by anyone. I overheard the staffers speaking over the walkie-talkie at around 11 p.m. That’s how I learned about it,” Lee Im-jae, the arrested former head of the Yongsan district police, told lawmakers.

Evidence that has emerged so far suggests the crowd surge in the Itaewon alley began to turn especially serious at around 10:15 p.m. on Oct. 29.

“As the district police head I regret that I could not respond sooner. To the victims and their families I’ll never stop feeling sorry for the rest of my life,” Lee said.

Democratic Party of Korea Rep. Kim Kyo-heung said the real-time police monitoring system should have allowed the disaster to be communicated to the top of the police organization early on. Seoul police senior superintendent Ryu Mi-jin said in response that city police were equipped with the system for monitoring emergencies in real time.

“By 11 p.m. there were 131 calls to police for help as the crowd built up into a crush and young people were dying. All the while the police real-time operations center remained inactive,” the lawmaker said.

The father of late Lee Ji-han, who lost his life at 24 in the Itaewon crowd crush last year, looks on from the audience as the hearing proceeds at the National Assembly on Wednesday. (Yonhap) The father of late Lee Ji-han, who lost his life at 24 in the Itaewon crowd crush last year, looks on from the audience as the hearing proceeds at the National Assembly on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Similarly, senior officials at the police emergency dispatch service center said they first became aware of the crowd disaster at around 10:59 p.m.

According to records seen by Basic Income Party Rep. Yong Hye-in, however, by 10:59 p.m. there had already been several calls made to the police dispatch service as well as requests from the fire department for a joint response.

Yong, citing records she obtained, said the Seoul police agency did not take any steps until 11:30 p.m.

“By that point, more than a hundred calls had been placed to alert police, many of which warned of a possible crush. It seems clear from the records that the fire department was struggling to handle the situation by itself and the police simply were not there to respond,” she said.

“Seoul police did not take any action until it was way past the ‘golden hour’ response time.”

The head of Seoul police agency’s emergency dispatch service team reiterated that they began mobilizing a response after becoming aware of the incident at 10:59 p.m.

Kim Kwang-ho, chief of the Seoul police agency, denied that police were unprepared for the large crowd.

He told lawmakers that officers were deployed ahead of the Halloween festivities for patrol and crowd management. But police “did not anticipate the possibility of a crush,” he added.

With a second hearing slated for Friday, the opposition called for extending the National Assembly probe of the disaster in Itaewon, which is due to close in three days.

“The parliamentary probe hasn’t been able to address what it should have in the time it was allotted,” the party’s Floor Leader Rep. Park Hong-keun said Monday.

Park said that the police’s own special investigation into the Itaewon disaster, launched on Nov. 1 to investigate the Itaewon disaster independently from the rest of the police, has failed to get to those in the very top ranks.

“The safety minister, the prime minister or the Seoul mayor have not been investigated properly by the special investigation team, which is another reason why the National Assembly probe needs to be extended,” he said.

The special investigation team of the police has so far sent 28 officials as suspects in the Itaewon disaster to prosecutors. Among them are former Yongsan police chief Lee and former chief of the Yongsan District Office Park Hee-young.

In a briefing Tuesday, the spokesperson for the police’s special investigation team said officials of a more senior rank in the government or Seoul metropolitan office could not be held accountable based on existing laws.

The police spokesperson said that according to laws on the management of disasters and safety, accountability in the Itaewon disaster did not extend to those at the Ministry of Interior and Safety or the capital city's office.

As the Halloween crowd crush took place in the single district of Yongsan, the Seoul office was not obligated to form a citywide response under law, the spokesperson said. Legal accountability purportedly could not be established beyond the district’s authorities.

The spokesperson ruled out booking more suspects in the investigation, which is to be wrapped up in about two weeks, suggesting that neither Safety Minister Lee Sang-min nor Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon will face charges.

The Democratic Party said once again Monday that it would file a motion for firing Lee, who is facing mounting calls to resign as the safety minister in the wake of the disaster. President Yoon Suk-yeol said Tuesday there will not be a Cabinet reshuffle in the near future, rejecting the possibility of the minister’ dismissal.

The official death count in the Itaewon disaster rose to 159, the Safety Ministry announced Tuesday, after a teenage survivor took his own life on Dec. 13.