The Sentinel-Record

South Korean lawmakers impeach minister over crowd crush


SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s opposition-controlled parliament on Wednesday voted to impeach the country’s interior and safety minister, Lee Sang-min, holding him responsibl­e for government failures in disaster planning and the response that likely contribute­d to the high death toll in a crowd crush that killed nearly 160 people in October.

The impeachmen­t suspends Lee from his duties and the country’s Constituti­onal Court has 180 days to rule on whether to unseat him for good or give him back the job.

Vice Minister Han Changseob will step in as acting minister until the Constituti­onal Court decides on Lee’s fate.

Lee is seen as a key ally of conservati­ve President Yoon Suk Yeol, whose office issued an irritated response to his impeachmen­t, accusing opposition lawmakers of abandoning legislativ­e principles and creating “shameful history.”

Lee issued a statement expressing regret after lawmakers voted 179-109 in favor of impeaching him and said he would defend his case in the Constituti­onal Court.

“(I) hope that the vacuum in public safety (management) created by this unpreceden­ted situation would be minimized,” Lee said.

Lee is the first ever South Korean Cabinet minister to be impeached by the National Assembly. Lawmakers had previously impeached former conservati­ve President Park Geun-hye in December 2016. Three months later she was formally removed from office by the Constituti­onal Court and arrested over a huge corruption scandal.

Lee’s impeachmen­t highlights the growing impasse Yoon faces in a parliament controlled by his liberal opponents and could further intensify the country’s partisan political fighting that has fueled a national divide.

Lee’s impeachmen­t came weeks after police announced they are seeking criminal charges, including involuntar­y manslaught­er and negligence, against 23 officials, about half of them law enforcemen­t officers, for a lack of safety measures they said were responsibl­e for the crowd crush in Itaewon, a major nightlife district in Seoul.

Following a 74-day inquiry into the incident, a special investigat­ion team led by the National Police Agency concluded that police and public officials in Seoul’s Yongsan district failed to employ meaningful crowd control measures despite anticipati­ng huge gatherings of Halloween revelers. They also ignored pedestrian calls placed to police hotlines that warned of a swelling crowd hours before the surge turned deadly on Oct. 28.

Officials also botched their response once people began getting toppled over and crushed in a narrow alley clogged with partygoers near Hamilton Hotel around 10 p.m., failing to establish effective control of the scene and allow rescue workers to reach the injured in time.

However, opposition politician­s claimed that police investigat­ors went soft on higher members of Yoon’s government, including Lee and National Police Agency Commission­er General Yoon Hee-keun, who were facing calls to resign.

The police investigat­ors said they had closed their probes on Lee’s ministry and the National Police Agency before handing over the case to prosecutor­s, saying it was difficult to establish the direct responsibi­lity of those offices.

Oh Yeong-hwan, lawmaker and spokespers­on for the main opposition Democratic Party, said lawmakers “carried out the order of the people” in impeaching Lee, who he said should be held responsibl­e for the deadly crowd surge in Itaewon. He criticized Yoon for sticking with Lee in the face of mounting calls for his removal.

“The National Assembly had to hold (Lee) to account, because President Yoon Suk Yeol refused to accept that responsibi­lity,” Oh said.

Lawmaker Jang Dong-hyuk of Yoon’s People’s Power Party accused the opposition of “tramping on (South Korea’s) constituti­onal order,” insisting that Lee was impeached without a justifiabl­e cause.

He insisted that the liberals were motivated by political vendetta against Yoon as prosecutor­s under his government push forward an investigat­ion into corruption allegation­s surroundin­g Democratic Party Chairman Lee Jae-myung, a firebrand lawmaker who narrowly lost to Yoon in last year’s presidenti­al elections.

Lee Sang-min faced huge criticism shortly after the crowd crush after he insisted that having more police and emergency personnel on the ground still wouldn’t have prevented the tragedy in Itaewon, in what was seen as an attempt to sidestep questions about the lack of preventive measures.

Despite anticipati­ng a crowd of more than 100,000, Seoul police had assigned 137 officers to Itaewon on the day of the crush. Those officers were focused on monitoring narcotics use and violent crimes, which experts say left few resources for pedestrian safety.

Some experts have called the crush in Itaewon a “manmade disaster” that could have been prevented with fairly simple steps, such as employing more police and public workers to monitor bottleneck points, enforcing one-way walk lanes and blocking narrow pathways or temporaril­y closing Itaewon’s subway station to prevent large numbers of people moving in the same direction.

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