S. Korean president slams police, but not interior minister, for Itaewon disaster

Posted on : 2022-11-08 14:19 KST Modified on : 2022-11-08 14:19 KST
After Yoon Suk-yeol says police are responsible for safety and accident prevention, police object to being made scapegoats for the deadly crowd crush in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at a national safety system inspection meeting held at the presidential office in the Yongsan District of Seoul, on Monday morning. The meeting was held to inspect the disaster safety management system and discuss measures to improve the system. (Presidential office press pool)
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at a national safety system inspection meeting held at the presidential office in the Yongsan District of Seoul, on Monday morning. The meeting was held to inspect the disaster safety management system and discuss measures to improve the system. (Presidential office press pool)

“Who is responsible for preventing a safety accident? The police.”

“Can we really say the police had no authority in such a chaotic situation?”

“I don’t think it makes any sense that the Yongsan District Office didn’t know so many people would be gathering there.”

“Our police aren’t a joke. They have such great information gathering skills, so why did they just sit there and watch the whole thing unfold for four hours?”

“Was the Itaewon disaster caused because the system is inadequate?”

These were all questions South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol asked on Monday morning during a meeting on national safety regulations at the presidential office, where he pointed out in detail the different ways the police failed in their responsibilities to prevent the Itaewon disaster.

The meeting was attended by National Police Agency chief Yoon Hee-keun, who received his first report two hours after the disaster.

At a briefing that day, Lee Jae-myoung, deputy spokesman for the presidential office, provided a detailed account of the president’s remarks during the closed-door meeting. President Yoon's strong rebuke was almost entirely focused on the police.

Shifting responsibility to the police for the entire incident, Yoon demanded they innovate, saying he would be holding the guilty parties “strictly” responsible.

However, the president didn’t make any mention of the Ministry of the Interior and Safety or its minister, Lee Sang-min, who is in charge of the nation’s disaster and safety management and who oversees the work of both the police and firefighters.

Some say that Yoon may be trying to block calls for Lee’s dismissal, which have been overwhelming and bipartisan, and instead stop at reprimanding high-level police officials.

“In order to effectively respond to various dangers in our society, an overall institutional review of the authority, responsibility and rapid reporting system concerning safety management must be conducted,” Yoon said. “In particular, to protect the safety of the people, major innovation is needed in the work of the police to prepare for dangers and prevent accidents,” the president added.

“I will make sure that this disaster is thoroughly investigated and that the process is publicly disclosed in a transparent manner and with no suspicions,” Yoon said, adding that those who are found to be responsible by the investigation will face severe consequences.

Although Yoon didn’t say explicitly who would be held responsible, he made the remarks after mentioning the need for the police to innovate. This likely means that the higher-ups in the police, who caused major public outrage for their overall poor response to the Itaewon disaster, will be reprimanded.

The same day, Yoon also acknowledged that the president is indeed the “control tower” in a disaster, but most of his remarks were clearly focused on shifting responsibility for what happened to the police.

Yoon further stressed the police’s responsibility by bringing up past cases when the police disrupted the national order, including the controversy over the appointments of senior superintendents general and collective action by the police against the establishment of a police bureau by the Ministry of Interior and Safety.

Within the police, there are also some who, while acknowledging their own responsibility, are criticizing the fact that the interior ministry and the presidential office are being given a free pass.

"An alternative can only be devised if we deal with the lack of cooperation within the disaster safety management system as a whole. Blaming only the police amounts to shirking responsibility,” a senior police officer in the Seoul area said, adding that the government is trying to “make the police a scapegoat”.

Similarly, a police officer from South Gyeongsang Province said that “the president, who has been trying to deprive the police of power all along, is now in a hurry to find someone responsible. He’s trying to hide the mistakes of the state's management and make the police a scapegoat.”

Kwak Dae-kyeong, a professor of police administration at Dongguk University, also agrees with this narrative. ”The president is only holding the police accountable in order to find someone to pin the blame on,” Kwak says.

“Even if the police didn’t adequately respond to the situation, the local and central government should be held responsible as well,” Kwak added.

While Yoon didn’t mention the possibility of reprimanding Lee Sang-min, it seems that for the time being Lee will be in charge of innovating the police, a task which the president has strongly called for.

“Clear responsibility is something that should be directed at the person responsible, and vaguely calling for ‘everyone to take responsibility’ is not acceptable in modern society,” Yoon said.

“If there’s a large-scale accident due to the poor management of the situation, that’s under the jurisdiction of the police. These things shouldn’t get mixed up,” Yoon emphasized.

Through such comments, Yoon seems to be refuting any arguments that Lee should be held responsible as the person in charge of disaster and safety management.

Critics point out that it’s inappropriate to entrust Lee, the person who was ultimately responsible for the disaster and who should be stepping down from his post, with improving the national disaster response system. In addition, Lee is a former judge who has no experience in dealing with disaster or safety issues.

Immediately after the disaster, Lee’s lack of expertise was on full display when he attracted significant public criticism for saying that the Itaewon disaster “would not have been solved by deploying more police in advance” and instead focusing more on legal responsibility for the disaster.

Critics within the police force are objecting that Lee shouldn’t be put in charge of police innovation when he was the main figure in the disaster.

“I don't know if the Ministry of Interior and Safety has the ability [to achieve innovation for the police],” the senior police officer said. "I don't think [Lee] feels any sense of responsibility," he added.

Some also say that the Interior Ministry's responsibility for police matters has also grown now that it has established a police bureau.

“Even if there was no direct command of the police in the past, the minister of interior took government-level and political responsibility when something went wrong,” another senior police officer said.

In addition, Yoon said the disaster wasn’t related to the national safety system.

Yoon said he doesn’t believe the narrative that the national safety system during the Itaewon disaster wasn’t working or was insufficient. Instead, he said the disaster was caused by the police’s passive and incompetent handling of the situation, not the government's administrative or institutional mismanagement.

By Ko Byung-chan, Kim Mi-na, and Kwak Jin-san, staff reporters

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