(5th LD) Nat'l Assembly votes to impeach interior minister over Itaewon tragedy
(ATTN: ADDS reaction from rival parties)
By Kim Na-young
SEOUL, Feb. 8 (Yonhap) -- The opposition-controlled National Assembly voted Wednesday to impeach Interior Minister Lee Sang-min over last year's Itaewon crowd crush, marking the first-ever impeachment of a Cabinet member.
The impeachment motion passed 179-109, with five votes ruled invalid, forcing the suspension of Lee from duties until the Constitutional Court decides whether to endorse or reject the motion.
Depending on the court's decision, Lee will either be reinstated or removed from office.
The court has 180 days to rule on the case.
The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) and two minor parties introduced the impeachment motion earlier this week to hold Lee accountable for the government's allegedly bungled response to the crowd crush that killed 159 people.
It marked the National Assembly's first impeachment of a Cabinet member.
In the past, two presidents -- Roh Moo-hyun and Park Geun-hye -- were impeached by the National Assembly in 2004 and 2016, respectively. The Constitutional Court rejected Roh's impeachment, but endorsed Park's and ousted her from office.
It is unclear how the court will rule on this case, but compared with a dismissal motion, an impeachment requires more concrete proof that the official in question has violated the Constitution or law in serving his or her role.
After wrapping up an investigation last month, police decided not to hold any officials from the interior ministry, the Seoul city government or the national police agency accountable for the deadly accident, concluding those bodies are not legally responsible for crowd control duties.
Shortly after the vote, Lee said he will faithfully undergo the impeachment trial.
"It is very regrettable to cause concern to people due to the passage of an impeachment motion against me," he said in a statement. "I hope the state of vacuum in public safety, which would be brought about by this unprecedented incident, would be minimized."
The ministry will try to carry out its duties in an unwavering manner, Lee said.
"I will do my best to normalize the Ministry of the Interior and Safety by faithfully undergoing the Constitutional Court's impeachment trial," he said.
The office of President Yoon Suk Yeol denounced the impeachment as a "shame."
"It's an abandonment of parliamentarism," the office said in a statement. "It will go down in parliamentary history as a shame."
The government and ruling party have maintained Lee did not violate the law or Constitution in his response to the crowd crush.
Rep. Joo Ho-young, the floor leader of the ruling People Power Party, accused the DP of using the Oct. 29 tragedy to harm the Yoon administration in a "political fight."
"The Democratic Party will have to take full responsibility if the impeachment gets overruled," Joo said, warning the DP will be judged by the people at next year's parliamentary elections for abusing its majority power.
Joo further accused the DP of objecting to the result of last year's presidential election.
The DP, however, boasted the passage of the motion to impeach Lee, saying it carried out the "people's order."
"The National Assembly held Lee to account on behalf of President Yoon Suk Yeol, because he refused to take responsibility," DP spokesperson Oh Yeong-hwan said.
"Minister Lee Sang-min can no longer hide behind President Yoon Suk Yeol and the People Power Party. We hope Minister Lee Sang-min awaits the judgment of the law."
DP floor leader Park Hong-geun said the Yoon administration will become "the worst government in history," calling on the president to publicly apologize to the people and the bereaved families of the victims.
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