October 26, 2023
SEOUL – In the aftermath of the deadly crowd crush in Itaewon, Seoul, in October 2022, lawmakers here have raced to introduce new bills to prevent a recurrence of the disaster.
A slew of problems surfaced in the wake of the unprecedented human crush that killed 159 people in the heart of South Korea’s capital.
For example, Korea had no legal basis to assign responsibility for safety during a large gathering that does not have a specific host.
Moreover, there was no automated external defibrillator in the area that could have been used to save the lives of people in cardiac arrest, meaning rescuers had to rely on manual CPR.
Some non-Korean victims’ families had trouble bearing the cost of bringing the bodies home for funerals, sparking calls on the government to help with the financial burden.
One year on, scores of bills to address these issues still languish in the National Assembly.
These include bills aimed at clarifying who should be held liable in case of a deadly incident at a large gathering; providing legal status for bereaved families; and mandating more state financial aid for a foreigner’s death in Korea, among many others.
Meanwhile, political clashes over a special bill giving the National Assembly the power to name a special counsel to seek criminal charges against key government officials have brought the process to a standstill, until now.
Of about 40 bills in which lawmakers brought up the Itaewon crowd crush incident as an instigation, according to an online bill disclosure system by the National Assembly, just one has become law.
A bill by the ruling People Power Party Rep. Jeon Bong-min, which became law in April, recognized shop owners in the Itaewon neighborhood as being eligible for state-backed emergency relief after the crowd crush disaster.
Other than that single piece of legislation, little has changed since.
A year of parliamentary debate yielded no legislation to hold a local government legally liable when people are hurt during crowding in a public space.
Itaewon was mobbed each year as a go-to venue for Koreans to celebrate Halloween. Because this wasn’t an organized event, central and local government leaders like Safety Minister Lee Sang-min and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon could not be held accountable, according to a special police probe that booked 23 people for professional negligence.
Both the Safety Ministry and local governments have said they are working to prepare crowd control measures this year, against the backdrop of the same legal setting as in 2022.
A meeting presided over by Prime Minister Han Duck-soo on Wednesday indicated that the Safety Ministry has urged local governments to strengthen safety measures by doubling onsite safety checks and revising local bylaws.
Seventeen lawmakers — including People Power Party Chairman Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon and National Assembly deputy speaker from the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea Rep. Kim Young-joo — have proposed bills to state that the head of the local government should be liable in case a large crowd is expected, by revising the Framework Act on he Management of Disasters and Safety.
These bills, along with one designed to permit the bereaved families of a disaster to request specific information from government bodies during an investigation, and give them the power to request the disaster response headquarters to disclose information, were merged on Sept. 20. at the Assembly’s committee level.
Also pending at the National Assembly are bills by People Power Party Reps. Choi Youn-suk and Kim Do-eup to require crowded tourist spots to install automated external defibrillators at a place that is accessible at all times.
Rep. Woo Sang-ho of the Democratic Party in February proposed a bill to revise the Disaster Relief Act to allow bereaved families of foreigners who died in a disaster in Korea to have their costs covered for flights and a limited stay in Korea, and for the repatriation of victims’ bodies to their home countries, in addition to the funeral costs covered by the government for all crowd crush victims. The bill is currently at the committee stage.
Also among the pending bills are ones to provide bereaved families with administrative and financial support, protect their privacy, and provide extra protection against secondary victimization, such as malicious online comments.
Lastly, the National Assembly is still locking horns over a special bill proposed by the opposition party to give the legislature the investigative power to investigate the cause of the incident. The ruling party believes it is a veiled attempt at attacking the incumbent Yoon Suk Yeol administration.
The special bill proposed by Rep. Nam In-soon and 182 more lawmakers came immediately after the parliamentary probe ended calling for the impeachment of the safety minister. A Constitutional Court ruling in July cleared Minister Lee of liability for the crowd crush.
The bill, which the Democratic Party could use to try to hold Lee accountable, passed the committee in August, but it has yet to be tabled in the National Assembly plenary session.
The National Assembly’s term ends in May next year, meaning all pending bills will be considered dead if they do not become law in about six months.
In the 20th four-year term of the National Assembly, which lasted from 2016 to 2020, it took a year and seven months on average for a proposed bill to pass parliament.