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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on Nov. 3)

All News 06:59 November 03, 2022

Blame game won't help

Conflicting claims arise over what went wrong, who is responsible for Itaewon tragedy

Public figures have belatedly apologized for their improper responses to the Itaewon tragedy that killed at least 156 people, but questions are being raised over what went wrong, who is responsible for the missteps and what might have been done to prevent the disaster.

At the heart of the raging dispute is whether police failed to take proper actions to prevent the weekend Halloween crowd surge in advance, especially after transcripts of emergency calls were disclosed, showing that police had received warnings from people at the scene ahead of the deadly incident.

Yoon Hee-keun, commissioner general of the National Police Agency, apologized Tuesday over the Itaewon tragedy and confirmed that 11 emergency calls from Itaewon were made from 6:34 p.m. Saturday, hours before the lethal incident took place.

Although Yoon said he feels heavy responsibility and pledged to conduct a swift investigation to uncover the truth, critical responses from the public have not subsided, and members of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea increased their attacks against government figures in connection with the tragedy.

One of the top-ranked figures under attack is Interior Minister Lee Sang-min, who found himself in deep trouble over his controversial remark that the crowd was not so big and the disaster could not have been prevented even if more police officers had been deployed.

Lee made an apology about the incident as the minister in charge of public safety at a meeting with lawmakers Tuesday, but only expressed "regret" about his comment that sparked a wave of public outcry.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon and Park Hee-young, chief of Yongsan-gu, also apologized over the tragedy. Some have speculated those apologies were issued largely because President Yoon Suk-yeol was enraged Tuesday when briefed about the inaction of police to emergency calls and ordered a thorough investigation. A presidential official denied any direct link between President Yoon's orders and apologies by public officials.

While members of the opposition increased pressure on the president to replace top officials responsible for the Itaewon tragedy, the dispute over who is at fault took a turn as a police officer claiming to work at the Itaewon Police Station contradicted Yoon Hee-keun's admission of an "insufficient" police response. In a post on an internal police communication network, the police officer claimed that those 20 officers at the station did their best but the influx of the crowd was overwhelming for those on duty. In addition, the station had asked for the dispatch of additional police forces to handle the Halloween festivities, but the request was rejected, according to the post.

The post was in apparent response to public criticism about the police station and officers on duty at the time after the transcripts were revealed.

In addition to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, Yongsan-gu Office and police, the blame game is also being directed toward a group representing local businesses in Itaewon.
Local media outlets reported that officials from the business association, Yongsan Police Station, Yongsan-gu Office and Seoul Metro held a meeting Oct. 26, three days before the tragedy. According to a leaked meeting note, merchants demanded that police not dispatch "excessive forces" this year, as the restrictions were too severe when managing COVID-19 infections during Halloween last year.

But the business association argued the meeting note recorded by police was factually inaccurate, as the association had not requested police to reduce the dispatched forces for the occasion.

For all the conflicting claims about responsibility, police are unlikely to escape political disputes, as a local broadcaster reported late Tuesday that the National Police Agency drew up a potentially sensitive internal report about the impact of the Itaewon incident based on the analysis of public opinion, civic group responses and media reports, predicting the tragedy could lead to anti-government movement.

No matter how complicated the situation may become, the government is urged to carry out its investigation properly to uncover all the truths that triggered the heartbreaking tragedy, to hold those responsible accountable and to map out specific crowd management policies -- for the victims, for their bereaved families and for the Korean public.


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