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Police response for Itaewon tragedy leaves doubts

By Im Eun-byel

Published : Nov. 4, 2022 - 15:36

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Officials under the police`s special investigation division leave the Yongsan Police Station after a raid, Wednesday. (Yonhap) Officials under the police`s special investigation division leave the Yongsan Police Station after a raid, Wednesday. (Yonhap)

The whereabouts of top figures among the police and the administration’s chain of command are being pointed out as the reasons for what exacerbated the disaster in Itaewon, which took the lives of at least 156 people.

The police have been operating a special investigation division to uncover the cause of the Oct. 29 tragedy.

"We have completed an investigation of 85 people, including 67 witnesses and victims, 14 employees at nearby businesses and four police officers dispatched to the scene," Inspector Son Je-hwan, who is in charge of running the division, said at a briefing held Friday at the Seoul Metropolitan Police's Mapo branch in western Seoul.

"We are checking 141 pieces of closed-circuit TV footage collected near the scene. We are working on creating a 3D simulation of the situation in cooperation with the National Forensic Service,” Son said.

Son said the team will focus on how the tragedy happened.

“We are focused on finding out what was the reason behind the accident and who is responsible for the accident,” Son said. “It is important to find out whether or not related authorities took the necessary action for safety control.”

Though the incident is thought to have started from people in the front falling down due to the pressure from the back, an official from the special investigation division said the team cannot be sure about the reason yet.

“(The incident) could have begun from people falling down, but this is not for sure yet,” the official said.

Additionally, the inspection team has not yet brought in any suspects for charges related to the tragedy.

Furthermore, an inspection run by the police showed that former Yongsan Police Station Chief Lee Im-jae, who was dismissed after the tragedy, was in command at a protest site in the Yongsan area on Oct.29.

After the protest wrapped up, he dined at a nearby restaurant and left at around 9:30 p.m. following the report on the situation in Itaewon, according to the investigation division.

Lee, however, arrived near the Itaewon area at around 10:40 p.m., though he had been located some 1.8 kilometers away from the scene. It took him 20 more minutes to arrive at the exact scene of the incident, the investigation found.

The investigation team said it could not find traces of Lee giving commands during the 90 minutes since he left the restaurant and arrived at the scene.

Additionally, Lee is accused of making a false report. The Yongsan Police Station reported that Lee began making commands on the scene at 10:20 p.m. by giving orders to control traffic, which does not add up to the inspection team’s claim that Lee arrived at the scene after 11 p.m. The Yongsan Police Station reported that the next command was made at around midnight, ordering officers to secure the path for ambulances.

Another officer, Ryu Mi-jin from the Seoul Metropolitan Police, was not at the designated situation room she was supposed to be at to respond to the tragedy, the investigation division said.

Instead, she was at her own office when the incident happened. She was notified of the tragedy at 11:39 p.m.

Errors in the police’s notification system was revealed to have rippled out to the upper ranks.

Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency Chief Kim Kwang-ho was notified of the tragedy at 11:36 p.m. Meanwhile, Yoon Hee-keun, the head of the National Police Agency, was notified at 12:14 a.m. the next day.

Local news reports pointed out that there was not enough police manpower to respond to the tragedy, as many were deployed to protest sites.

On the day of the incident, there were 15 protests happening across central Seoul, including at Jongno-gu, Namdaemun and Yongsan-gu. All riot squads under the Seoul Metropolitan Police were deployed to the protest sites. The Seoul Metropolitan Police also called in eight riot squads from police stations outside of Seoul to be on standby for possible confusion from the protests.

Though an officer from the Yongsan Police Station requested the deployment of riot squads in Itaewon for managing crowds there some two hours before the incident happened, the Yongsan Police Station turned down the request, saying that some of the protests had not wrapped up yet.

According to Rep. Lee Sung-man from the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, the police focused on regulating drug use in the Itaewon area on the night of the tragedy, rather than crowd control.

Fifty of the 137 police officers deployed in the Itaewon area on Saturday night were plainclothes officers tasked to keep an eye on possible drug use.

Preliminary reports drawn up by the Seoul Metropolitan Police and Yongsan Police Station on managing the Itaewon area on the Halloween weekend showed that both were focused on preventing crimes such as assaults, theft and drug use rather than crowd control.

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