Criticism escalates over South Korean authorities’ response to tunnel flooding

Critics and local reports suggest authorities had time to block off the underpass to traffic before it was flooded.

Son Ji-Hyoung

Son Ji-Hyoung

The Korea Herald


An aerial view of the inundated underground tunnel in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province. (Yonhap)

July 20, 2023

SEOUL – A blame game has begun over the deadly tunnel flood that took 14 lives in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, with criticism growing over the lack of a timely response, and authorities passing the buck.

An association of civic groups in North Chungcheong Province on Wednesday accused multiple local authorities of failing to prevent a “serious civic accident” under the Serious Accidents Punishment Act, where those responsible might face at least a year in prison or a fine of up to 1 billion won ($790,400).

Lee Sun-young, an official at the civic group association, said it was “evident” that three chiefs of government bodies — North Chungcheong Province, Cheongju City and the National Agency for Administrative City Construction — should be held accountable given that at least one person died in what the law defines as a public-use facility, adding further legal action could be taken against other entities like the police.

Critics and local reports suggest authorities had time to block off the underpass in Osong-eup near Cheongju to traffic before it was flooded.

The first flood warning was issued at 4:10 a.m. by the Geum River Flood Control Office, an oversight body in charge of the waterways in the area, as over 170 millimeters of rain fell Saturday.

This was followed by a request hours later to control traffic near Miho River and order residents to evacuate at 6:30 a.m. This request reached the ward office of Heungdeok-gu and Cheongju city government, but it failed to reach the North Chungcheong Province government office, which oversees traffic control on local roads, such as the one running through the tunnel near the Miho River.

North Chungcheong Province dispatched officials after it learned that the tunnel was flooded, while monitoring the situation through the surveillance camera.

Meanwhile, police received two emergency calls warning about the flooding in Miho River, a tributary of Geum River that was 500 meters away from the scene of the incident, and asking the road to be closed off, at between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. Saturday.

But police only arrived at the scene at around 9 a.m., about 20 minutes after the road was inundated. Upon emergency calls, police were reportedly dispatched to other roads and intersections in the area, but failed to do so in time to the underpass — one of the closest roads to the river.

The hourslong delay led to the operator of a city bus to make a detour through the underpass, instead of the regular route. It was one of the 17 cars trapped in the flooded tunnel. Nine of the 14 casualties, including the bus driver, were aboard the bus.

Criticism escalates over South Korean authorities' response to tunnel flooding

This photo shows a search and rescue operation underway on Sunday at the flooded undergrouond tunnel near Miho River in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province. The operation was concluded Monday at night. (Yonhap)

The provincial office has reportedly been laying the blame on the National Agency for Administrative City Construction, the agency in charge of the river improvement project by Miho River, for failing to fortify the embankment to prevent the flooding.

The office claimed that the agency built the makeshift bank — which collapsed and let 60 million liters of water into the tunnel within three minutes — without proper permission to do so. The Geum River Basin Environmental Office, an agency under the Ministry of Environment, echoed the claim. The agency in charge of construction, however, claimed that it did not violate any laws when building the makeshift bank.

As for the Geum River Flood Control Office’s failure to notify the North Chungcheong Province government on the need for road closure and evacuation, the office said it had abided by instructions.

Neither Cheongju city Mayor Lee Beom-seog nor North Chungcheong Province Gov. Kim Young-hwan were aware of the imminent threat of the tunnel being flooded. They were aware of the situation only after the deadly incident occurred.

Legal experts, weighing in on who should be held responsible, said the flooded Cheongju tunnel incident can be viewed as a “disaster,” which could hold a specific government entity accountable under the Framework Act on the Management of Disasters and Safety.

The Itaewon crowd crush that killed some 150 people last year was not classified as a “disaster” under the disaster management law in Korea, making it difficult to hold authorities responsible.

Both the central governmental audit and special police investigation were launched Monday. A joint probe of police, forensic officers and fire department is scheduled to start Thursday, provided the rain subsides. The Office for Government Policy Coordination leads the state audit, as its minister, Bang Moon-kyu, inspected the Osong underpass Wednesday.

There were 14 casualties in the underpass, among 50 people who were either dead or missing due to torrential rain over the past few weeks, as of 11 a.m. Wednesday. Ten people were injured at the scene.

Meanwhile, President Yoon Suk Yeol has reportedly reprimanded Environment Minister Han Wha-jin for not dredging the riverbed of Miho River prior to the accident, which would have lowered the water levels and could have prevented the flooding. Three high-ranking officials of the Environment Ministry overseeing freshwater resource management have reportedly offered to resign.

scroll to top