On February 8, Lee Sang-min, the minister of interior and safety, was impeached by South Korea’s National Assembly over his culpability in the tragedy that unfolded in Itaewon last October.
A huge celebration in one of Seoul’s most popular districts attracted an enormous number of party-goers after years of pandemic restrictions made such gatherings impossible. On October 29, young people flocked to Itaewon, an emblematic area in Seoul known for its nightlife and large foreigner population, dressed in costumes to celebrate Halloween. The festive night turned deadly when people became trapped in one of the neighborhood’s narrow alleyways, and over 150 people, most in their teens and early 20s died.
The nature of the Itaewon crowd crush, from the youth of the victims to the government response, is reminiscent of the 2014 sinking of the Sewol Ferry. In one of the worst tragedies in South Korea in the last decade, over 300 people, 250 of whom were high school students on a school-sanctioned field trip, died as a result of mismanagement at all levels, from the ship captain to the South Korean president’s office.
The president at the time, Park Geun-hye, and her government faced immense criticism for their slow and erroneous response to the disaster, as well as attempts to downplay government responsibility in the tragedy and unhelpful investigations that spared top officials from accountability or punishment. The mismanagement of the Sewol Ferry disaster was one of the events that led to Park’s impeachment.
With the grief over Sewol still strong, it is clear that current President Yoon Suk-yeol, the first conservative president since Park, has made an effort to respond to the Itaewon disaster more quickly than his predecessor. Yoon immediately announced a pledge to reform the police administration and overall national safety system. A task force was also launched by the National Police Agency to audit the chain of command and response systems in place, in response to the heavy criticism the bureau received for its insufficient attention to the emergency as it was taking place. Safety on public transportation in Seoul and surrounding cities also saw more attention from the government, with more resources deployed to combat severe overcrowding on trains and buses during rush hour.
Despite the swift response, Yoon and his government have not publicly apologized for what happened in Itaewon; an apology would assume an acknowledgment of responsibility. Four months after the tragic crowd crush, many South Koreans are still waiting for the government to take direct responsibility for the events that led to this avoidable loss. Members of the Yoon administration, and Yoon himself, have expressed deep sadness and regret over the loss of life and the tragedy of the situation, but many Koreans deem these gestures insufficient.
As a result, there have been calls for many top officials, including Yoon’s entire cabinet, to resign. Currently, no one in Yoon’s cabinet has stepped down to take responsibility for the tragedy.
Families of the deceased have also described the government’s responses as cold and insensitive. When one teenager took his own life after both his girlfriend and best friend were killed in the crush, the South Korean prime minister called the teenager’s death heartbreaking, but said that “it would be better if he had been a little stronger and sought treatment.” The comment brought an immense backlash, to which the government responded by adding the teenager to the official death toll of the Itaewon victims.
While multiple members of the Yoon government have made similar inappropriate comments in the face of the tragedy, the attention is currently on one official in particular: Lee, the interior minister. The Ministry of Interior and Safety, which is responsible for disaster safety and is the center of control for police response, has faced the most calls to take responsibility for the crowd crush.
Families of the deceased were enraged when the probe team tasked with investigating who is responsible for the disaster in Itaewon concluded that neither Lee nor the police chief would be held accountable for any charges. The probe team did not press charges against any top officials in the Ministry of Interior or the Seoul city government and instead determined that local officials and authorities were to be held responsible.
Amid public anger over the lack of accountability, the main opposition, Democratic Party (DP), which holds a majority in the National Assembly, introduced a motion to impeach Lee due to his “insufficient response” to the crisis. The National Assembly passed the DP’s impeachment motion on February 8, making Lee the first sitting minister to be impeached by parliament in the country’s modern history.
Yoon expressed anger at the passage of the impeachment motion, calling it a “shame” in parliamentary history. The ruling party and government have doubled down on the position that although Lee’s response and actions to the Itaewon tragedy sparked criticism, impeachment is not warranted because he did not violate the law or constitution.
From the beginning, Lee has expressed that he is not at fault for the tragedy. During the government’s first joint meeting on October 30, one day after the crowd crush, Lee said that the number of people in Itaewon that night was not enough to raise concern, and deploying more police forces would not have changed anything about what transpired that night. Many viewed this characterization of the night as an attempt by Lee to push blame away from himself and the Ministry of Interior and Safety for not doing enough to prevent the disaster.
The public backlash to his comments was immediate, with even members of his own party, the ruling People Power Party (PPP), criticizing him for making such remarks. In the face of growing public outrage due to Lee’s comments, Yoon immediately released transcripts of emergency calls made on the night of the crowd crush. The Ministry of Interior and Safety was also accused of trying to downplay responsibility after it ordered local governments to use words like “incident” and “deceased” at memorial altars instead of using words like “disaster” and “victims.”
According to polls, 70 percent of South Koreans view the Yoon administration’s response to the Itaewon crowd crush as “inappropriate.” The public’s anger and dissatisfaction over the Yoon administration’s response to the tragedy backed up the DP’s decision to impeach Lee, who has refused to step down from office.
After the National Assembly passed the impeachment motion, Lee was immediately suspended from his duties. In the next step of the impeachment process, the Constitutional Court will decide within 180 days whether to uphold the impeachment and remove Lee from office.