Dispute over Assembly probe into Itaewon disaster worsens

Although the ruling People Power Party opposes the idea of a parliamentary investigation, the three opposition parties plan to launch it at the plenary session of the National Assembly.

Lee Jung-Youn

Lee Jung-Youn

The Korea Herald


Rep. Joo Ho-young (left), floor leader of the ruling People Power Party, National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin-pyo (center) and Rep. Park Hong-keun, floor leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, meet Monday at the National Assembly. (Yonhap)

November 15, 2022

SEOUL – The ruling and main opposition parties remain at loggerheads over the Itaewon tragedy, with the two sides refusing to give way in discussions over a parliamentary investigation.

On Monday, ruling People Power Party Floor Leader Rep. Joo Ho-young and Democratic Party of Korea Floor Leader Rep. Park Hong-keun met with National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin-pyo to discuss the issue, but parted ways after only confirming their differences.

Park urged the ruling party to participate in the parliamentary investigation, saying it is a way to uncover the truth for the people, but Joo countered by saying the National Assembly should focus on the budget and bills and leave any investigation to the police.

The Democratic Party, Justice Party and Basic Income Party submitted a request for a parliamentary investigation on Wednesday, saying that police, which should be among the targets of the probe, should not be leading the investigation.

Although the ruling People Power Party strongly opposes the idea of a parliamentary investigation, the three opposition parties plan to launch it without the ruling party’s consent at the plenary session of the National Assembly on Nov. 24.

Earlier Monday, the People Power Party held an internal meeting to gather opinions about the oppositions parties’ demand for a parliamentary investigation. Chung Jin-suk, the ruling party’s interim chief, said it would not be too late to start a parliamentary investigation after the police investigation concludes.

“I believe the only intention behind the parliamentary investigation demand is to defend and protect the party leader Lee Jae-myung from controversy surrounding him,” he added.

In an attempt to pressure the ruling party before the plenary session, the Democratic Party on Saturday began a campaign to gather signatures for a petition for a parliamentary investigation and independent counsel, accelerating the national level campaign to push ahead their plan.

Criticism over selective investigation

While the rival parties clash over the parliamentary investigation, the special investigation team is facing criticism over deliberately avoiding investigating the Interior Ministry and government, laying the responsibility on front-line workers.

As of Monday, the special investigation team has booked seven people on charges related to the Itaewon disaster: Senior Superintendent Ryu Mi-jin, then-chief of the Yongsan Police Station Lee Im-jae, Mayor of Yongsan-gu Park Hee-Yeong, two employees of the intelligence department of Yongsan Police Station, chief of the Yongsan Fire Station Choi Seong-beom and the CEO of Hamilton Hotel.

One of the intelligence department officers, surnamed Jeong, died by suicide on Friday. Critics say it is a tragedy caused by the harsh investigation that has focused primarily on the front-line, low-ranking officers.

Investigations into the upper institutions — the Ministry of the Interior and Safety and Seoul Metropolitan Government — are still not underway, although it appears to be inevitable as the Interior Ministry oversees police and fire authorities as a control tower for the disaster situation, and the Seoul Metropolitan Government is the umbrella local government for the Itaewon area.

The probe team issued a direct statement to address the criticism Sunday, saying, “We are humbly listening to various opinions regarding the investigation, including the criticism that the team only investigates low-ranking officials.”

“Many institutions are related to this investigation, and determining the facts on whether they have established preliminary plans, showed appropriate on-site response and reported to other institutions on time are the priority to clarify,” the team explained, adding they would endeavor to meet the public’s demand for the truth.

Meanwhile, the investigation team has turned to examine the dispute between the Seoul Metro and Yongsan Police Station, summoning an official from Seoul Metro on Sunday.

The two institutions have been arguing over who is to blame for the failure to have subway trains bypass Itaewon Station to alleviate some of the foot traffic there on the day of the tragic crowd crush.

The Yongsan Police Station claims that Seoul Metro insisted on normal operations after police asked them to send on the train without halting at 9:38 p.m., 37 minutes before the accident. Seoul Metro has denied the notion, saying no such request was received from police before the disaster. Seoul Metro counters that it was 11:11 p.m., about an hour after the disaster, when police finally contacted Itaewon Station to stop the train operations.

On Oct. 29, the day of the disaster, 131,131 total passengers used Itaewon Station on Line No. 6. That compared to 96,463 people on Oct. 26, 2019 — during the last Halloween celebrations before the COVID-19 pandemic — for an increase in passenger traffic of about 35 percent.

scroll to top