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Police face full force of fury over Itaewon response

Memorial altar in front of Noksapyeong Station is covered in flowers, offered to pay tribute to those who lost their lives at the tragedy in Itaewon, Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Memorial altar in front of Noksapyeong Station is covered in flowers, offered to pay tribute to those who lost their lives at the tragedy in Itaewon, Wednesday. (Yonhap)


The police are speeding up their investigation into the authorities’ part in the Itaewon disaster, while criticisms of its response to the incident rises.

Following the release of 11 phone transcripts to the police, which were made hours before the incident took place on Saturday, the police have faced increasing criticism from the public and political circles, as well as pressure from the government.

Yongsan Police Station Chief Lee Im-jae has been put on a standby order, the first figure to be dismissed for the tragedy. The National Police Agency explained that Lee is not in a situation to carry out his duties.

 

The NPA revealed Tuesday that they had received 11 calls from hours before the incident happened, with callers raising concerns about a major incident. NPA Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun admitted that police were alerted to what was going on, and apologized for the “insufficient” response.

The presidential office said President Yoon Suk-yeol was enraged after receiving the report on the list of emergency calls. Yoon called for a “thorough investigation which will not leave behind a trace of doubt” and for the matter to be “handled strictly under the law and principle.”

“We will look into who did what wrong through a thorough inspection and investigation,” the office said Wednesday when reporters asked whether Interior Minister Lee Sang-min will be dismissed as well.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo also called for a strict probe into the incident.

"The government will take action against those who are accountable after the investigation is wrapped up, and will come up with measures to improve the emergency call response system,” Han said at a meeting held Wednesday.

"The most fundamental duty of the police is to protect the lives and property of the people," Han said. "If (the police fails to) carry out its duty due to idle decisions and a lack of energy, it will betray the trust of the people.”

Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon also voiced criticism against the emergency response, while stressing that the prosecution cannot properly look into the case as its investigative powers has been reduced.

"This matter requires a strict investigation," Han said on his way to attend a meeting at the National Assembly.

“However, there is a limit for the prosecution in conducting an investigation on the reasons behind the tragedy. With the reform of the law, the prosecution cannot open an investigation for disasters,” he said.

Both the ruling People Power Party and opposition Demcoratic Party of Korea called for a thorough investigation of the case.

Meanwhile, it was revealed that the NPA drew up a report on the public’s sentiments and the possible political fallout from the incident.

The NPA issued an internal report on Monday, looking into how the larger public and civic groups are responding to the tragedy.

“Some liberal-leaning civic groups are discussing how they will respond to the incident, calling it the biggest tragedy since the Sewol ferry disaster, under the notion that (the Itaewon tragedy) could possibly lead to demand for the current administration to resign,” the report analyzed.

The report also claimed women’s rights groups may attack the current administration’s plan to abolish the Gender Ministry based on the fact that more women lost their lives in the tragedy than men.

Criticism arose that the police are more concerned about maintaining political stability rather than being focused on properly responding to the incident itself, as the report was drawn up only a few days after the tragedy happened.

“The police’s writing up of a report to block political criticism rather than handling the tragedy is inappropriate from any viewpoint,” People Power Party floor spokesperson Jang Dong-hyeok said.

The NPA, meanwhile, searched eight organizations related to the Itaewon disaster to collect data on emergency calls made on that day and the plans for security for Halloween weekend, including from the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency and Yongsan Police Station.

Other locations raided include the Yongsan Fire Department and the Yongsan-gu District Office.

The police have been operating a special investigation division since Tuesday to uncover the cause of the Halloween disaster in Itaewon. It consists of 501 police officers, led by Inspector Son Je-hwan.

The special division plans to examine whether the officers, who received 11 reports in the four hours prior to the disaster, fulfilled their responsibilities, and whether their actions after receiving the reports were appropriate.

According to the transcript of the Itaewon disaster report submitted to Rep. Lee Seong-man of the Democratic Party from the Yongsan Police Station and Yongsan Fire Department the day before, signs of an accident were detected in Itaewon four hours before the disaster. All of the callers said that they were concerned about people dying from the pressure of the crowd.

The police also brought in “a man wearing a headband with rabbit ears” for questioning regarding the incident. Some people claiming to be at the scene identified the man in social media posts as purposely pushing the packed crowd to make way.

The man has been denying the accusations, saying he left the Itaewon area before the fatal accident happened.

It was also reported Wednesday that it took more than an hour for the top police figures -- such as the heads of the NPA and the Seoul Metropolitan Police -- to be notified of the accident.

The NPA is currently looking into why the reports were delayed.

By Im Eun-byel (silverstar@heraldcorp.com)

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