How the Itaewon tragedy is being made into a Sewol for ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol

In 2014, South Korea was rocked by the Sewol ferry tragedy, including a failed rescue operation.  To be honest, it failed for objective rather than subjective reasons, but the outcome of the tragedy made the public look for the culprits and the Democratic Party, being in opposition at the time, “rode the wave” and “turned the tables” on the Blue House and Park Geun-hye personally. Moreover, playing on the grief of the loved ones for the lost children, the democrats did “outreach” to them, provided them with consultants or lawyers and turned them into a politicized NGO channeling their hysteria against the government, which they accused of all the deadly sins.

In 2022, against the backdrop of the Itaewon tragedy, the Democratic Party is trying to do the same. More precisely, as soon as the emotions had subsided, the Democratic Party launched a hysterical campaign under the slogan “a cat left kittens in the cold – it is Yoon Suk-yeol’s fault.” On November 1, Lee Jae-myung lashed out at the government, saying the deadly crush had clearly been a “man-made disaster and a disaster that derives from the government’s incompetence and carelessness”. Parliamentary faction leader Park Hong-keun echoed him: “The Itaewon accident was a man-made disaster caused by the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s overall incompetence.” And Jeong Jong-Nae, a member of the Democratic Party’s supreme council, said the ultimate responsibility for the Itaewon tragedy lies with President Yoon.

At the same time, there were blatantly false allegations that the tragedy had been caused by the fact that all the police who were supposed to be on the scene were guarding Yoon Suk-yeol, whose presidential residence is nearby. It is unlikely that the deputy head of the Democratic Party think-tank, Nam Young-hee, was unaware that street patrolling and first-person security are under different agencies.  However, while she did delete her post on social media, another Democrat MP Lee Sung-man made the claim on TBS radio, and female MP Yang Kyung-sook even claimed that what had led to the deadly situation was that “the Yoon Suk-yeol administration cornered many young people”, comparing the Conservative government to those who seized power and used troops to slaughter civilians in Gwangju in 1980.  As if the young people were being driven to the Halloween celebrations by invisible military.

What is the reason for such strange remarks? It may be that Hwang Un-ha, another Democrat MP, claimed that one of the reasons for the disaster was that Yoon Suk-yeol had declared war on drugs and the police were looking for them instead of paying attention to the crush.

However, Yoon Suk-yeol, unlike Park Geun-hye, could not have been blamed for disrespecting the plight of the people. The President attended the altar and tragedy-related religious events every day, so Democrats could only demand an official apology from him, and the sacking of at least Minister of Public Administration and Security (the equivalent of the Ministry of Interior) Lee Sang-min and National Police Chief Yoon Hee-keun, as well as ideally the mayor of Seoul and the Prime Minister. Thus, on November 2, Lee Jae-myung called on senior government officials to take responsibility for the tragedy and resign.

Indeed, a person who bears or feels symbolical responsibility for such events would traditionally resign after such a tragedy, but Yoon’s appointees refused to do so. As Yoon Hee-keun explained to the media, his role is to retain the post, withstanding all criticism to uncover the truth, deal with the accident and develop necessary measures, adding that he will decide whether to resign once the case is over. Minister of Public Administration and Security Lee Sang-min also said that resignation was not a decision that could be taken by the person in charge.

On November 14, Lee Jae-myung criticized Lee Sang-min for the above phrase, which he called an inexcusable insult, and on November 25, the head of the Democratic Party parliamentary faction, Park Hong-keun, demanded that the President fire Lee or the National Assembly would hold the Minister severely liable.

On November 28, the ROK media reported that more than 83% of civil servants’ union members supported the punishment and sacking of Minister of Interior Lee Sang-min for his inept response to the fatal crush. However, only about 38,000 of the union’s 120,000 members took part in the survey, so it is not entirely clear whether this is the real opinion of the people. In addition, a union affiliated to the Democratic Party has filed a complaint against him and he faces criminal prosecution for negligence.

On December 11, the National Assembly, where the Democrats have 169 of the 299 seats, decided to demote Lee Sang-min. The motion won the support of 182 of the 183 MPs who took part in the vote, with members of the ruling party leaving the room en masse before the procedure began.

In response, a presidential administration official said on December 12 that Lee Sang-min’s resignation would be decided after the investigation into the circumstances of the tragedy is completed – any resignations would be possible once the truth is established.   For, although such a move sounds very high-profile, the final decision rests with the President, and Yoon will not give up his cronies without hard evidence. Moreover, this is the second impeachment of this type. After the Democrats decided Yoon Suk-yeol’s visit to the US had failed, Parliament similarly “sacked” Foreign Minister Park Jin, who remained safely in his post.

The next course of action for the Democrats is to set up a “parliamentary enquiry” and ideally appoint a special prosecutor on the matter. Technically, because the police are investigating themselves and the authorities could hide, but in fact because the investigation will have great media weight and will be led by investigators appointed by parliament, where the Democrats have a majority.

On November 9, the Democratic Party and two minor progressive parties submitted a joint request, backed by 181 legislators, for a parliamentary enquiry into the Itaewon crush. On November 23, both political parties agreed, and on November 24 an 18-member ad hoc parliamentary committee, comprising nine representatives of the Democratic Party, seven representatives of the People Power and two representatives of other opposition parties, held its first meeting.

The enquiry committee will be chaired by MP Woo Sang-ho, a former interim leader of the Democratic Party and someone who has already had experience of investigating the Park Geun-hye scandals. While the investigation is still working with the families of the victims, it is already clear what its verdict will be. All the more so as the author is completing this article, the People Power is sabotaging the investigation – its members have announced their withdrawal from the committee in protest against the opposition’s initiative to sack Minister Lee.

However, working with families and crowds is a separate area. Already on December 3, some 60,000 people turned out for a candlelight rally organized by democratic NGOs in Seoul, with placards reading “retire Yoon” and “the tragedy could have been prevented, but the state was not there.”

And the families of the victims are being approached by, for example, the law firm Good Lawyers, which encourages them to take part in a class-action lawsuit against the central and local authorities.  The case is led by lawyer Jeon Su-mi, a part-time member of the Democratic Party’s political committee (formerly the party’s deputy press secretary).

On November 22, the families of some of the victims of the crush held their first press conference, demanding that the government issue a sincere apology, conduct a thorough investigation into the tragedy, take steps to allow victims or their families to participate in the ongoing investigation, provide assistance to the victims, and erect memorials and protect the dead from criticism.

People’s grief was channeled “in the right direction” as the event was set up by an “organization of progressive lawyers”, well known as MINBYUN (“Lawyers for a Democratic Society”): quite a few politicians (including Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in) emerged from this organization, and it is no wonder that parents branded the authorities who “did nothing when our children were dying”. “Members of the association of bereaved families” accused the government of failing to take proper steps to honor the victims and announced that the group would continue until they receive a “sincere apology” from the Yoon administration.

To what extent does the opinion of the victims’ relatives coincide with that of the people? KBS poll data indicate that 73.8% of respondents support the resignation of those responsible for the Itaewon tragedy. Over 60% of those surveyed felt that the authorities had reacted badly to what happened (and over 45% said the reaction had been “very bad”). 43% support the proposal for an independent parliamentary enquiry.

As one can see, this actually sounds like a story of anti-government spin on the Sewol tragedy, but the author does not have the heart to condemn people whose grave emotional state has been taken advantage of by politicians accustomed to PR on children’s blood.

All the more reason to condemn the reaction of some conservative politicians, who immediately branded such associations of relatives as a completely biased and pro-democratic project.

For example, Daegu mayor and Yoon’s main rival in the primary, Hong Joon-pyo, urged the president to be firm: “if you stumble in a time of crisis like this one, which the nation is currently going through, I’m afraid you’ll face a situation akin to what happened in the aftermath of the Sewol ferry tragedy”.

Kweon Sung-dong, former People Power leader and Yoon’s good friend, wrote on his social media account that the victims’ families “shouldn’t organize themselves and pressure the government”, which “should be careful so as to avoid politicization of the incident like what happened with the Sewol ferry.”

Let’s recap. Ethics and practical politics often go their separate ways and the behavior of the Democratic Party bears this out. However, a perfect repeat of 2014 does not work out for the Democrats, although another front has been opened against Yoon Suk-yeol. How the struggle on this front will end, one will see when the investigation reveals the specific culprits.

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.


You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress | Designed by: Premium WordPress Themes | Thanks to Themes Gallery, Bromoney and Wordpress Themes