Echoes of the Itaewon tragedy

The investigation into the October 29 tragedy in Seoul’s Itaewon district, in which 168 people were killed in a stampede, has finally concluded. Both the official investigation team and the parliamentary inquiry launched by the opposition Democratic Party announced their findings. And, because it was obvious from the start that the investigation would be highly politicized, it was.

The outcome of the official investigation

The 501-member investigation team began its work on November 1, 2022, and announced its findings on January 13, 2023. The cause of the tragedy was described as “Crowd Crush as a result of uncontrolled crowding.” The main causes of death were pressure asphyxia and cerebral hypoxia.

Flaws in the work of the authorities responsible for safety were cited as the reason for the incident, as such a situation had been foreseeable given the mass influx of people.

As a result, 23 cases (mainly for involuntary manslaughter by negligent performance of professional duties) were referred to the prosecutor’s office. Six people are in custody, including the head of Yongsan Police Station, Lee Im-jae, and the head of the local administration, Park Hee-young. The cases against them have been forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for indictment. The four others include Superintendent Park of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA), who is accused of deleting internal reports warning of overcrowding on Halloween and a possible safety accident. On January 18, the Seoul Western District Prosecutor’s Office filed charges against Lee Im-jae for professional negligence and falsifying official reports related to the accident, and on December 26, Park Hee-young was arrested. Lee is forced to claim the role of scapegoat, mainly because it took the official an hour to get to the scene of the accident – he drove there through traffic when it would have taken only 10 minutes if he had walked, and no action was taken for the lost time.

Another 17 people have been charged but are not in custody. They include SMPA chief Kim Kwang-ho, two other SMPA officials in charge of monitoring emergencies, the chief of Yongsan Fire Station Choi Seong-beom, the chief of Yongsan Community Medical Center, and the chief of Itaewon Subway Station.

The managers of the Hamilton Hotel, which is adjacent to the accident site, and the bar on the hotel’s second floor are also being prosecuted for illegally erecting structures in the narrow alley, making it even narrower.

Once the cases are transferred, prosecutors are expected to conduct additional investigations to determine whether they should go to trial.

As a result, the investigation team decided not to charge officials from the Ministry of Administration and Security as well as Seoul City Hall. Investigators concluded that the deaths had resulted from actions and omissions of the police, fire department, and Yongsan-gu Municipality, which includes Itaewon. According to a member of the investigation team, the local administration, not the central or metropolitan government, is legally responsible for disaster prevention and emergency response. As a result, Minister of Administration and Security Lee Sang-min, National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-geun, and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon are not held accountable, and the author agrees that symbolic and actual responsibility should be separated.

Of course, the relatives of the victims disagree with this thesis and demand symbolic dismissals, especially since lawyers from NGOs affiliated with the Democratic Party immediately began working with the former. According to the bereaved families, the official investigation “cut off the lizard’s tail to save its head” because “the government and the ruling party were only interested in containing the political fallout by attempting to protect the mayor of Seoul, the minister of interior and security, and the national police chief”.

Parliamentary investigation

A parallel parliamentary police investigation was initiated, reasoning that the police had to investigate themselves and “we will not know the truth.” Especially since the truth in the Democrats’ version has long been known: similar to the sinking of the ferry Sewol in 2014, the Democrats immediately began to make the tragedy a symbol of the current government’s incompetence and impotence, concluding that all of its key representatives, of course, should be fired.

It is clear that a parliamentary investigation in this form could not work properly. On the one hand, the conservatives sabotaged its progress; on the other, the democratic investigators were more likely to make grand gestures on camera and talk more with the victims’ relatives than actually investigate.

The 45-day parliamentary investigation began on November 26, but it was not until December 19 that opposition parties approved the schedule and witness list for the parliamentary inquiry into the Itaewon stampede because the ruling party boycotted the investigation. The schedule included two on-site investigations, two rounds of report sessions by relevant agencies including the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office, Seoul City Hall, Yongsan District Office, Yongsan Fire Station, Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency and Yongsan Police Station, and three days of hearings, in which eighty-nine witnesses, including Lee Sang-min, Yoon Hee-geun and Se-hoon were to appear before parliamentarians.

On December 21, the Parliamentary Committee began its investigation by visiting the crash site. The committee’s next stops were the Seoul Metropolitan Police Headquarters and City Hall.

Along the way, committee members visited the memorial altar and met with the families of the victims. Some attacked the committee members, accusing them of a belated visit that took place about a month after the committee had been established.

As for the hearings, the ruling party fixated its attack on the Yongsan police station chief. The Democratic Party focused on criticizing the overall police response, arguing that the police were more focused on fighting drug-related crimes and were not keeping an eye on the crowd.

In the end, the parliamentary investigation (let’s not forget that the Democrats have an overwhelming majority in parliament) came up with exactly the outcome the Democrats wanted. South Korea’s three opposition parties – Toburo, the Justice Party, and the Basic Income Party-submitted a report accusing eight high-ranking government officials, including Minister Lee Sang-min, Han Oh-Sop, head of the Presidential Administration’s State Affairs Operations Department, Yoon Hee-keun, head of the National Police Agency, and Kim Kwang-ho, Seoul police chief, among others, of perjury and false testimony. But the Democrats traditionally gave no specific examples of perjury or improper response.

Representatives of the ruling party predictably spoke out against it, which provoked outrage among the relatives and family members of the victims who were present at the meeting, and the subsequent riots. On January 18, the opposition parties stated that since the parliamentary inquiry “did not live up to expectations,” “an independent organization is needed to further uncover the truth about the tragedy and work out measures to prevent similar accidents.”

“What now”?

From the author’s point of view, the excitement surrounding the tragedy is gradually subsiding as no heartbreaking details have emerged about a minister/official who had played golf during the tragedy, chatted with shamans, and had gone about his business only after the banquet. Thus, media coverage of the tragedy is moving from an acute to a chronic phase, and the Democrats have rather failed to unleash a wave of mass discontent along the lines of Sewol.

For starters, the administration has shown a reasonable degree of empathy, promptly addressed the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, and put forward a series of amendments designed to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again. The claims that Yoon Suk-yeol tried to downplay the tragedy from the beginning, instructed officials to use the word “accident” instead of “disaster,” and has yet to issue a presidential statement apologizing to the nation are loud but not dangerous.

Second, the anti-government argument is neutralized by the fact that conservatives and Democrats are still measured not by their approval ratings, but by their anti-ratings. And the latter is currently higher by the Democrats: the likelihood of a criminal case being brought against Democratic Chairman Lee Jae-myung has increased significantly recently, and the evidence cited in the media and elsewhere does not give the impression that it has been “concocted.”

Therefore, it is too early to finish the story on the stampede, but it is time for an ellipsis.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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