Yoon administration rushes to defend itself from blame over Itaewon tragedy

Posted on : 2022-11-02 15:39 KST Modified on : 2022-11-02 15:39 KST
Remarks by the minister of the interior and safety have been interpreted as a preemptive defense mechanism by the administration to avoid being held responsible
President Yoon Suk-yeol heads to the site of the Itaewon crowd crush tragedy after paying his respects to those killed at a joint memorial altar on Nov. 1. (Yoon Woon-sik/The Hankyoreh)
President Yoon Suk-yeol heads to the site of the Itaewon crowd crush tragedy after paying his respects to those killed at a joint memorial altar on Nov. 1. (Yoon Woon-sik/The Hankyoreh)

Questions about the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s responsibility for the deadly crowd crush in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood on Saturday have been intensifying after revelations that the police did not adequately respond to calls to the 112 emergency services number in which people voiced concerns that they could be “crushed to death.”

Now the administration appears likely to face criticism for focusing solely on superficial explanations and defending itself against accusations of responsibility in the wake of the tragedy.

The details that emerged on Tuesday showed catastrophic misjudgments on the part of the police. The 112 emergency services number was found to have received at least 11 calls voicing fears of a potential crowd crush between 6:34 pm — roughly four hours before the tragedy — and 10:11 pm, just before the crush turned deadly.

Even after receiving these pleas for help from the public, the police were found not to have even checked the situation on the ground for seven of them. Korean National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun and other members of the police leadership appear likely to face even sterner accusations blaming them for the lack of a response.

From the early stages after the crush, the police had been waving off claims of their responsibility, insisting that there was “no manual for responding to crowd situations without an organizing presence behind them.”

With the police being seen by many as bearing primary responsibility for the tragedy, their announcement of plans to set up a 475-member investigation headquarters to determine the cause and responsibility for the crush drew criticisms from people viewing it as a case of “an investigation by the very people who should be investigated.”

Ignoring requests from local merchants demanding measures against possible safety issues for an event drawing crowds of over 100,000 people, police had only 137 officers positioned at the scene on the day of the tragedy. Just 58 of them were uniformed officers tasked with maintaining order.

The Prime Minister’s Secretariat has been at the center of the attempts to deflect responsibility.

Speaking about the causes of the tragedy with the foreign press on Tuesday, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said, “While there may have been many factors at play, the crucial one was crowd management.”

“Even if there had been more staff in charge of public order at the scene, I don’t know how much more could have been done without such a system in place,” he said — effectively blaming the “system,” even after the revelations of the police’s failure to respond to pleading reports from the public.

Critics have also taken aim at directions from the Prime Minister’s Secretariat concerning the use of consistent terminology, arguing that its request to substitute phrases translated as “Itaewon accident” and “the dead and wounded” for the phrases “Itaewon disaster” and “victims” was part of an attempt to avoid being held responsible.

In a parliamentary countermeasures meeting, Democratic Party floor leader Park Hong-keun said, “The administration should avoid causing unnecessary controversy by referring to what was clearly a disaster as an ‘accident’ in order to downplay it, or by referring to the victims as ‘the dead’ in order to dodge responsibility.”

Remarks by Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min have also been interpreted as a preemptive defense mechanism by the administration to avoid being held responsible. Lee was quoted as saying that the Itaewon tragedy was “not something that could have been solved by positioning more police and firefighters ahead of time.”

In response to the deaths of five Iranian nationals in the crush, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that the South Korean government “should have managed the [Halloween] event if it knew how to do so.” The somewhat testy response from the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs — which expressed “dismay at these remarks that should not have been made” — can be read along similar lines.

Park Won-ho, a professor of political science at Seoul National University, said the “Ministry of the Interior and Safety’s reason for being is protecting the public and keeping them safe.”

“The point [of determining responsibility] is not to reprimand people but to identify flaws in the system and plug the gaps, yet President Yoon and the rest of the administration seem to lack that perception that the public is there for them to protect,” he said.

By Um Ji-won, staff reporter; Jang Na-rye; staff reporter; Joh Yun-yeong, staff reporter

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