January 31, 2024
SEOUL – It was like a second stab to the heart for Mr Lee Jung-min, who lost his daughter in an Itaewon crowd crush in October 2022 in which 159 people died.
“Please just kill me too,” he cried in anguish as he collapsed to the ground upon hearing that South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol had vetoed a parliamentary Bill for a renewed inquiry into the Oct 29 incident, where thousands of mainly young partygoers converged in a narrow alley in the entertainment district with tragic consequences.
Mr Lee, whose daughter Joo-young, was 28 when she died, was among more than 50 bereaved family members protesting outside Seoul’s government complex on Jan 30.
Inside, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo presided over a Cabinet meeting, where he said that the proposed opposition-backed Itaewon Disaster Special Act called for a special 11-member investigative committee to be set up, which could lead to the misuse of administrative resources and further polarise public opinion. He said the Bill’s proposers had so far failed to prove that the earlier police investigations were problematic.
The ruling People’s Power Party (PPP) has maintained that the desire of the families for an independent inquiry on top of official investigations has been used by the opposition Democratic Party (DP) for political gain.
“The pain from the disaster cannot be used as a tool to justify political strife and a possibility of unconstitutionality,” Mr Han told the Cabinet.
Instead, he announced the formation of a special committee to look into compensation and support for survivors and victims’ family members, as well as the installation of a new memorial altar to replace the temporary set-up currently at Seoul’s City Hall.
Clutching the bars of the gate to the complex, bereaved family members shouted slogans amid tears and wails as police officers surrounded them to shield them from the traffic.
Family members are demanding accountability from the authorities following the investigations, which concluded in January 2023 that the disaster was “man-made”, caused by the failure of disaster prevention measures and the slow emergency response.
A total of 23 government officials, including the chief of Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, were indicted in January 2024 by the South Korean prosecutor’s office on charges of professional negligence and others, but the trial process has been slow.
Madam Sunny Kang, who lost her only daughter Lee Sang-eun in the tragedy, told The Straits Times that she was heartbroken over the rejection of the Bill.
“It’s been 460 days since our child left, and during this period we have been eagerly anticipating and hoping for a thorough investigation. It’s heartbreaking to know that the President has rejected it.”
Mr Lee, who leads the Association of Families of Itaewon Disaster Victims, which represents some 210 family members of 110 victims, said the government was trying to shirk its responsibility.
He told ST: “It was infuriating to witness the government brushing aside and ignoring the voices of these citizens. I think the government’s refusal to enact this special law stems from its recognition of the immense responsibility it holds for the Itaewon tragedy.”
Mr Lee added that the offer of compensation more than a year after the tragedy was “pathetic”.
“Throughout the past year, not once did we request compensation or damages. What we want is to know the truth behind our children’s deaths. Repeatedly trying to cover it up and offering money in this way is so insincere and truly a pathetic approach.
“How can we possibly live happily after receiving money for sending our children away?”
Madam Kang said such an offer only inflicts more pain.
Holding back tears, she said: “As fellow human beings, is it right to inflict secondary harm by discussing compensation and such issues when all we want is the truth? This is truly disheartening.”
The Itaewon Disaster Special Act is at the core of a political tussle ahead of the upcoming legislative elections in April.
Lawmakers in the ruling PPP boycotted the vote when the Bill was tabled in a parliamentary sitting on Jan 9.
The opposition-dominated National Assembly got it passed with a majority vote of 177 votes from 298 seats, but it then went to the President, who holds the right to veto.
A Bill that is vetoed can still have a revote at the National Assembly, but will require a two-thirds majority to pass.
Even before Mr Yoon exercised his veto, DP leader Lee Jae-myung had slammed the ruling administration for being “cold-blooded”.
Despite the opposition’s politicisation of the issue, Dr Bong Young-shik of Yonsei University did not think it would have a strong impact on the upcoming elections, given the amount of time that had passed since the tragedy.
“It is going to be a source of harassment for the ruling party and presidency, yes, but not a decisive blow to their political standing,” he said. “People’s memories of the incident have been fading away, except for the survivors and family members.”
He felt that the government has made an effective defence in blocking the Bill, by meeting some of the demands outlined in it.
“The special Act has two pillars. One is the provision of due compensation and support for the victims and the family members, and the other is truth-finding, which should be left in the hands of the prosecutor’s office and the government.”
Dr Bong also noted that people are beginning to feel that the opposition is abusing its dominance in the National Assembly to politicise critical issues and undercut the standing of the President and the ruling party.
“That really helps reinforce the argument of the president’s office and the ruling party that the opposition is not genuinely interested in finding the truth or helping the victims, they just want to weaponise these issues,” he said.
President Yoon has exercised his right to veto five times, to reject nine Bills during his tenure, which the opposition has derided as excessive.
But Mr Lee said the bereaved families just wanted the truth, and not to be caught up in the political crossfire.
He is also not giving up hope.
“Our purpose for living is, first and foremost, to determine the cause of why our children ended up the way they did. As long as that purpose exists, we will do our utmost, until the day we die, to uncover the truth.”