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‘It wasn’t an accident’: Halloween tragedy sparks partisan blame game

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea lawmakers on Tuesday visit the site of the Halloween crowd surge. (Yonhap)
The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea lawmakers on Tuesday visit the site of the Halloween crowd surge. (Yonhap)

South Korea’s political parties quickly turned to finger-pointing over the Halloween crowd surge that killed at least 156 people, according to the latest official count, with the opposition claiming that the disaster was not an accident.

“What happened in Itaewon is no doubt a man-made disaster, and it was caued by the incompetence of the administration in office,” the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung said Tuesday.

The Democratic Party spokesperson’s office said in a statement the same day that the fatal crowd surge was a “foreseen, and foreseeable disaster.”

“It was blatantly predictable that something like this could happen with more than 100,000 people gathering,” the party said. “As the victims cried for help, there was no law enforcement in Itaewon to protect them. Where were the police? What were the public officials doing?”

Then the party called on the Yoon Suk-yeol administration to apologize for “trying to shun scrutiny,” referring to the Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min’s remarks.

Lee was quoted as telling reporters Monday that he believed the disaster in Itaewon was not due to the lack of police officers dispatched to the scene -- a statement that he ended up apologizing for the next day.

The minister, appearing at Tuesday’s parliamentary session to brief the lawmakers about the police response and other questions about the Halloween disaster, said, “As the head of the ministry that is in charge of the people’s safey, I offer my apologies.”

Earlier the same day, the national police chief also admitted to inadequacy in initial response.


‘Yoon needs to go’

Calls were raised for Yoon to be held responsible, with some comparing the Itaewon crowd surge over the weekend to the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014.

The minor progressive Basic Income Party on Tuesday compared the president and his officials to the captain of the Sewol, who deserted the ferry as it sunk, leaving 304 people -- mostly in their teens -- dead or missing.

“There is no one saying he’s sorry. Only people trying to avoid taking responsibility, like the captain and the crew who left the Sewol ferry to sink,” said the party Rep. Yong Hye-in.

Rep. Jang Kyung-tae, who is on the Democratic Party’s supreme council, said in Monday’s meeting, “It’s been only eight years since the Sewol ferry accident, which laid bare the systemic failure of safety.”

He went on, “We ought to find out why and how this massive accident happened this year, when there was no such accident in 2017, with even a bigger crowd.”

The deputy director of the Democratic Party-run think tank Nam Young-hee demanded that the president and the Seoul mayor resign in a Facebook post Sunday.

In the post, which was quickly deleted, she claimed the Halloween disaster was “caused by the relocation of Cheong Wa Dae.”

She said that as Yoon moved the presidential office to Yongsan-gu, the same district where Itaewon is, the police there were being mobilized to escort the president instead of providing public safety.

“No matter how you look at it, that is where the fault lies,” she said, adding, “President Yoon Suk-yeol, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hun, Interior Minister Lee Sang-min need to go.”

One of the organizers of the weekly rallies calling for Yoon to step down, which calls itself Candlelight Action, said it would be holding a mass vigil on Saturday to honor the Itaewon victims.

“We begin to suspect this is not an accident, but a massacre of young people,” the organization’s leader, Kim Min-woong said on his Facebook on Tuesday.

The anti-Yoon rallies organized by Candlelight Action, which describes itself as a political organization, have been attended by several Democratic Party lawmakers including Reps. Kim Yong-min, An Min-suk, Hwang Un-ha and Min Hyung-bae.

The ruling People Power Party meanwhile hit back, saying, “Now is not to get off track with blame game.”

The party slammed the Democratic Party as “politicizing the tragedy” and “engaging in a divisive rhetoric at a time when the country needs to heal.”

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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