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05.12.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

How is the investigation of the Itaewon tragedy proceeding?

We are continuing with the series of materials covering the tragedy that took place on October 29, 2022 in Seoul’s Itaewon district where 158 people (as of now) died in a stampede in a narrow alley.

Who is investigating and how is it going?

A special investigation unit of 475 people has been set up under the National Police Agency. As part of the investigation, 154 witnesses were questioned, including ordinary police officers and eyewitnesses. A total of 7,134 physical evidence (material objects) related to the deadly accident, including documents and digital data, was seized. Inspector Song Jae-hwan, who is in charge of the special unit, said the focus was on finding out the cause of the tragedy and whether the authorities had taken all necessary security measures. In fact, they are investigating all departments that are connected with emergency situations, their prevention and elimination of consequences, whether it be the police, the fire department or municipal authorities.

Could the crowd crush have been prevented?

Hong Ki-hyun, chief of the National Police Agency’s Public Order Management Bureau, admitted that the police had failed to foresee the deadly crowd collapse. According to one university professor, the tragedy could not have been anticipated since it occurred due to the fact that “an indefinite number of people gathered in an uncontrollable environment.”

The problem of regulating mass events

British crowd control expert Steve Allen, in an interview with the Korea Times, cited the lack of crowd control plans as the main cause of the disaster. Hong Ki-hyun also acknowledged that there were no separate crowd control measures in the narrow alley where the stampede occurred.

The main reason for the tragedy was that spontaneous festivities of this kind were not considered in South Korea as a reason for a response from the police and authorities. More precisely, certain measures were taken, but they were not aimed at regulating the movement of large crowds.

At official events, the police work with the organizers and receive data from them on the number of people and the route of movement, after which certain measures are taken. Therefore, although innumerable mass events are constantly taking place in South Korea, including political demonstrations with the participation of tens of thousands of people, tragedies like the one in Itaewon do not happen. But here the authorities had no one to turn to with this issue, and no one could anticipate the crowd crush happening.

A more important, and according to some experts, fundamental problem is a law that requires the police to restrict people’s freedom of movement for public safety and order only for government-scheduled events or rallies that are notified to the police. The law provides for police intervention in “private gatherings” only when there is immediate danger. And without a clear legal definition, a dispute could arise about whether crowded streets fall into this category.

As can be seen, this law was carefully drafted after the military dictatorship to protect the freedom of the people in a country where the police had abused their power for decades. In order to avoid precedents with “the dispersal of an unsanctioned rally”, the pendulum was swung in the opposite direction. In the sense that, today police officers are preventing a stampede at a spontaneous event, but won’t they misuse the situation tomorrow?

Notification issues

One of the problems revealed is that the information about the critical situation moved slowly to top police command.

When responding to a disaster, every minute is precious because information about it must quickly reach the chief decision maker who must assess the situation and give a direct order which, in turn, must go down the bureaucratic chain. That is why the interval between a call to the fire department and the arrival of the fire brigade at the scene, to put it mildly, is not instantaneous. However, the situation can also be exacerbated by the fact that bad news is difficult to deliver.

According to police data, the first call to the emergency hotline was made around 10:15 pm stating that about 10 people had already been crushed by the crowd. However, this time is considered as the official beginning of the stampede, although before that there were at least 11 calls to the police with requests to prevent a potential disaster, and the first warnings of this kind were received 4 hours before mass casualties occurred.

It is the author’s belief that the police department was faced with a difficult choice: either to disperse the crowd, stopping the festivities and depriving people of a merry mood (it is quite clear what the opposition would have said about a disrupted holiday), or simply do nothing and hope that a tragedy would not happen.

According to the media, Yoon Suk-yeol was furious, having learned that the police had not taken any action even after receiving 11 calls, but a separate question is how and when the information had reached top decision-making officials.

A detached squad of special forces affiliated with the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency was in standby mode near Itaewon, but it was not mobilized in order to maintain public order.

Who is under investigation?

Already on November 3, a special investigation was launched against the chief of the Yongsan (where Itaewon is located) Police Station Lee Im-jae and Superintendent Ryu Mi-jin from the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency. Both have been dismissed and their arrest seems inevitable.

Furthermore, the head of the Yongsan District Fire Department Choi Seong-beom was detained on charges of negligence and inaction in the face of police requests for a joint response. The special investigation unit explained that Choi was unable to properly cope with the situation by not giving an order for mobilizing additional rescue resources from nearby stations.

The head of the Yongsan District Office Park Hee-young and the director of the Hamilton Hotel, by the surname of Lee, are suspected of involvement in the illegal extensions of the hotel which is why the free space was reduced in the lane where the fatal crowd collapse occurred.

The most high-ranking official to be probed is the chief of the public safety department at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA) Superintendent General Park Sung-min (temporarily suspended from his post on November 4). He is accused of ordering the deletion of an internal intelligence report that contained prior warnings of a possible unfortunate accident during the Halloween period in an attempt to conceal inaction.

However, the head of the Ministry of the Interior and Safety (analogue of the Ministry of Internal Affairs) Lee Sang-min has come under fire most of all from the public and politicians. First, he stated that he was “not sure that the disaster could have been prevented, even if more policemen and firefighters had been sent in advance.” After these words, Lee Sang-min was criticized for “an insensitive and immature attempt to evade responsibility.” Second, he refused to quit and symbolically tender his resignation, saying that first consequences must be eliminated and action plans developed for such situations.

On November 14, trade union organizations of the fire department turned to the special unit investigators with a complaint against Lee Sang-min, accusing him of negligence and non-fulfilling official duties that resulted in the death of people. In their opinion, in accordance with the current legislation of South Korea, Lee Sang-min is fully responsible for security during emergency situations, after which on November 16, a representative of the special investigation unit announced the initiation of an investigation against Lee Sang-min. If the inquest determines that Lee Sung-min is directly responsible for disaster prevention or response, he could be officially charged with dereliction of duty or professional negligence resulting in death.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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