July 25, 2023
SEOUL – The South Korean central government and prosecution are scrambling to hold local authorities accountable for the inadequate disaster response over the recent underpass flooding that killed over a dozen people in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province on July 15.
In a statement Monday, the Office for Government Policy Coordination accused officials from the provincial government and the National Agency for Administrative City Construction of a “grave dereliction of duty” and asked the prosecution to launch a probe into the matter.
The Government Policy Coordination Office said both the local government in North Chungcheong Province and the state agency under the Land Ministry in charge of a construction site on the collapsed bank of the Miho River near the scene of the incident failed to adequately respond to or effectively mitigate the disaster.
The statement comes as part of the central government’s audit on relevant government bodies following the deadly incident in an underpass in Osong-eup, Cheongju, which saw 16 cars and one public bus submerged in less than three minutes.
The failure to control traffic flow to the underpass and the collapse of the makeshift bank around the construction site during torrential rains led to the tunnel flooding, killing 14 people and injuring 10.
Those found to have neglected their duty may face up to one year in prison or a three-year suspension from public duty, according to the Criminal Act.
In the latest push from the central government to hold local authorities responsible for the insufficient response, President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday ordered Prime Minister Han Duck-soo to initiate government-wide efforts to execute a complete overhaul in the nation’s disaster response system during their weekly meeting.
Moreover, the prosecution has taken over from police as the investigative authority on the incident. The government and the prosecution claim that the police are also partly to blame for the incident.
The prosecution announced Monday that a team of 17 prosecutors launched an investigation into the cause of the incident in Cheongju, taking over the investigation from nearly 140 police officers.
Without further elaboration, the central government revealed that it asked the prosecution Friday to investigate six police officers for “falsifying information on the police response after receiving emergency calls” when reporting on the incident to auditing authorities.
The Cheongju District Prosecutors’ Office on Monday raided multiple offices, including that of the provincial police agency, the provincial fire service headquarters and the regional government of North Chungcheong Province, as well as the city government of Cheongju and the city construction agency.
During a press conference Sunday, police revealed footage recorded on police dashboard cameras at the time of the incident. The footage showed two policemen in a car receiving multiple emergency calls and going to multiple locations to control traffic and evacuate citizens for two hours from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on July 15.
Among the deluge of emergency calls, the officers received a call at around 8 a.m. to close the Gungpyeong 2 underpass, the scene of the deadly incident. The police recorded in their activity log that they had arrived at the scene about 10 minutes after receiving the call, when in fact they hadn’t gone to the scene at all.
The underpass was inundated about 30 minutes after the botched police response.
“We are not trying to refute the opinion by the Office for Government Policy Coordination or the prosecution,” a police official at the conference said Sunday. “We wanted to address any misunderstandings by the public that the police did not take any action.”
Among the latest efforts to seek criminal charges against relevant authorities in the region, an association of civic groups in North Chungcheong Province on Wednesday accused top officials of the province, Cheongju City and the National Agency for Administrative City Construction of failing to prevent a “serious civic accident” under the Serious Accidents Punishment Act.
Those found responsible for failing to prevent a deadly incident in a public-use facility like an underpass can face at least a year in prison or a fine of up to 1 billion won ($780,000).
Any government entities or officials who failed to fulfill their duty to implement safety measures in the face of a disaster can face criminal charges under South Korean law.
The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea has criticized the central government, saying that it is also responsible for the failure to prevent the incident, noting in particular that President Yoon was abroad when the flooding happened.
Yoon came under fire last week for failing to immediately return to Korea from Ukraine after the country was hit by heavy rains. Rep. Park Kwang-on, the floor leader of the Democratic Party, accused Yoon of “not trying to bear any responsibility” over the nation’s disaster response.
This season’s monsoon rains have so far left 47 dead and three missing, according to the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters on Monday.