November 9, 2022
SEOUL – The special investigation division looking into the causes behind the recent Itaewon tragedy has narrowed its sights on top police figures, after President Yoon Suk-yeol slammed police leadership for their insufficient response on Monday.
A special investigation team set up by the National Police Agency searched 55 sites related to the Itaewon disaster Tuesday, including the offices of Yoon Hee-keun, chief of the National Police Agency, Kim Kwang-ho, chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Agency, and Lee Im-jae, formerly chief of the Yongsan Police Station, who was dismissed after the disaster.
Chiefs Yoon and Kim were notified of the tragedy more than an hour after it happened, and Lee arrived late to the scene. The team will also look into the police chain of command.
On Monday, the team said it has identified six figures as suspects, including former Yongsan police chief Lee, Ryu Mi-jin, who was in charge of the situation room of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency at the time of the incident, two officials from the intelligence team at Yongsan Police Station, Yongsan-gu District office chief Park Hee-young and Yongsan Fire Chief Choi Seong-beom.
The special investigation division’s response is in line with President Yoon’s criticism of the police leadership for their negligent response to the tragedy at a national safety system inspection meeting Monday.
There were also criticisms leveled that the investigation was targeting only low-ranking officials related to the tragedy, with officials in higher ranks not taking the blame.
A series of raids last week ran across eight organizations did not include the offices of high ranking police officials.
Interior Minister Lee Sang-min has remained firm in his stance that he will not resign over the incident.
“There haven’t been any requests (calling for my resignation),” Lee said when questioned at a National Assembly meeting on Tuesday. “I am set to do my best dealing with a matter like this.”
Despite his claims, Lee has been met with calls to resign from the opposition parties as he is the top commander of national security and disaster response, in charge of police and fire departments.
“It is more important for me to do what I have to do in my place,” Lee said. “The urgent priority for me is to handle the accident and to come up with prevention measures so that a tragedy like (what happened in Itaewon) will not happen again.”
Additionally, Yongsan Fire Chief Choi being included in the list of suspects for insufficient response to the incident has been met with controversy.
According to the division, it found that Choi did not appropriately respond to the urgency of the scene on the day of the tragedy. An ambulance under Yongsan Fire Department arrived on the scene later than an ambulance from Jongno Fire Department in the neighboring district.
Yongsan Fire Department explained the ambulance was late in arriving at the scene of the incident as it was tending to another patient in the area. The division plans to look further into the fire department’s rescue response.
A spokesperson from the division said that Choi faces a charge of alleged professional negligence.
Choi is widely known by the larger public for conducting press briefings after the tragedy happened. His shaking hands during the briefings were shared by the press and social media for showing how tragic the scene of the incident was even to the eyes of a veteran with many years of experience.
Meanwhile, the division clarified Tuesday that Senior Superintendent Ryu would only be charged with dereliction of duty on Tuesday.
A day before, the division announced Ryu will be charged with dereliction of duty and professional negligence resulting in death.
“There was a mistake in listing up the charges against major suspects,” an official from the division said Tuesday.
Ryu will only be accused of not notifying her superior who is the chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Police about the incident on time.