The Korea Herald


2nd officer suspended over Itaewon failures

By Im Eun-byel

Published : Nov. 3, 2022 - 15:37

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The new head of Yongsan Police Station pays repect to those who lost their lives in the Itaewon tragedy at a mourning alter in front of Noksapyeong Station, Thursday. (Yonhap) The new head of Yongsan Police Station pays repect to those who lost their lives in the Itaewon tragedy at a mourning alter in front of Noksapyeong Station, Thursday. (Yonhap)

Another senior police officer has been dismissed from her position as authorities investigate the response to the crowd disaster in Itaewon, Seoul, on Saturday that left at least 156 people dead.

On Thursday, the police dismissed Senior Superintendent Ryu Mi-jin, who was in charge of monitoring the situation in Itaewon, for not taking special action despite the 11 calls made to police hours before the incident.

The police agency revealed Tuesday it had received 11 calls starting from around four hours before the crisis, warning of possible casualties from the crowd crush.

Ryu’s dismissal follows that of Yongsan Police Chief Lee Im-jae the day before. The two remain officers, but have been removed from their positions within the police.

In addition to the two officers’ dismissal, the police will request an official investigation against them for dereliction of duty.

However, critics point out that the police’s chain of command and the overall system were what exacerbated the damage from the tragedy.

Kim Sung-ho, a senior Interior Ministry official in charge of disaster management, said related figures would “take the rightful responsibility depending on the results of the investigation” when reporters asked about the dismissals seeming to be about finding scapegoats.

The special investigation division under the police said it would continue to look into the police response to the tragedy, focusing on whether officials have fulfilled their responsibilities.

Criticism also rose that the Police is investigating its own organization. The presidential office said Thursday that other measures could be taken if doubts remain.

"The police are looking into the matter with special determination of exposing their own weakness," an official from the presidential office said. "The public are concerned that the police may have insufficiently responded to the case as it took longer than needed for the top figures of the police to be aware of the situation."

While the police have been keen on tracking down those responsible for the tragedy, Interior Minister Lee Sang-min has not mentioned his resignation.

"Now is the time to focus on how to handle the crisis, mourn the deceased, offer comfort to the bereaved and help the recovery of those who are hospitalized," Lee told reporters on his way to the government complex in Seoul on Thursday.

As the chief of public security in Korea, Lee has been under fire since the tragedy. His remarks on police control have also sparked controversy. Lee was quoted as telling reporters Monday that he believed the disaster in Itaewon was not due to the lack of police officers dispatched to the scene, a statement he apologized for the following day.

"(After crisis recovery) we will work on prevention measures, and look into the reasons behind the incident and what was insufficient at the time,” Lee said Thursday.

Apart from the investigation, the government is looking into providing support for the victims and the bereaved, while working on preventive measures for the future.

President Yoon Suk-yeol called for a launch of an integrated support center to help the bereaved and those who were hurt in the crowd surge even after the national mourning period, the presidential office said Thursday.

Yoon gave the orders after visiting a mourning altar in Seoul Plaza.

The center will be under the wing of the prime minister's office. It will take care of the funeral service for the deceased, be in charge of running the relief funds and offering psychological treatment to the victims, bereaved and even the larger public.

The Labor Ministry said it will give unemployment benefits to bereaved families and those who were hurt in the accident, should they resign from their jobs due to trauma. It also plans to ask businesses to allow special leave for the bereaved.

Additionally, the government promised to tighten safety control management.

"The government will inspect safety control of big festivals where more than 10,000 people are expected to gather per hour," Prime Minister Han said at a meeting on Thursday.

"The inspection will focus on maximum capacity, dispersion measures at events and more," Han said. "(Local governments) should look into safety control manuals regardless of the existence of organizers."

Han said the government will come up with a reform plan for the national safety control system for crowd management based on scientific analysis, referring to President Yoon Suk-yeol’s suggestion of using drones and other digital capabilities to manage crowds.