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‘Where were the police?’ Top officials grilled over Halloween crowd crush

Officials and lawmakers close their eyes during a moment of silence for the deadly Halloween crowd surge during a National Assembly grilling on Monday. From left, the Korean National Police Agency’s Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun; Minister of Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min; and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon. (Yonhap)
Officials and lawmakers close their eyes during a moment of silence for the deadly Halloween crowd surge during a National Assembly grilling on Monday. From left, the Korean National Police Agency’s Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun; Minister of Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min; and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon. (Yonhap)

The National Assembly on Monday grilled high-ranking officials over their handling of the Itaewon crowd crush as the country tries to get to the bottom of a tragedy that has left at least 156 people dead.

At the parliamentary grilling, the police and the fire authorities came under fire as details of their tardy response emerged.

The police station in Yongsan, the district where Itaewon is located, failed to dispatch its teams in time despite getting 11 calls starting from nearly four hours prior to the incident, the lawmakers pointed out.

Rep. Chang Je-won called this “unfathomable neglect” and a “dereliction of duty.” The National Police Agency’s Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun said in response that he was looking into where the internal communication might have failed.

On dismissing some of the earlier calls for help, the chief of the fire department’s emergency dispatch center said the first caller “sounded lively, unlike most victims of crush injuries.”

“Based on this particular call, it was difficult to make out whether such an accident had actually transpired,” he said.

But according to the recordings acquired by Rep. Cheon Jun-ho’s office, the woman who first contacted the emergency dispatch service was gasping and pausing in between words. She told the dispatcher she was having difficulty breathing and her call ended after she apparently dropped her phone.

Meanwhile, Minister of Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min refused to resign, saying that he would “do the best (he) can” without giving up his position.

With the weeklong national mourning period coming to a close, the two political parties sparred over responsibility on Monday.


‘Time to bring justice’

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea demanded an “immediate firing” of key officials in charge, including the prime minister and the chiefs of the national and Seoul city police.

“Because of the irresponsibility and the lack of preparedness on the part of the government, some unpardonable atrocities have been committed,” the party said in a statement on Monday.

“The ruling party is trying to bury the truths surrounding the disaster hiding behind the police and the prosecution service. The ruling party should remember its duties to the people and stop defending the administration.”

Speaking at a meeting on the same day, the party’s chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung called for the appointment of a special counsel to oversee investigations of the disaster.

“Now is the time to bring justice,” he said. “It is the president with whom rests the final responsibility in the disaster.”

The main opposition party leader said that justice meant “concrete actions, and not just words.”

“Those actions would include the firing of the prime minister, and an overall reform of the government administration,” Lee added.

Rep. Park Hong-keun, the Democratic Party’s floor leader, said that on top of dismissing the prime minister and others, the presidential office and the Cabinet needed to be “completely overhauled.”

He said that if Yoon “truly feels the pain of the family of the victims” and “intends to take full responsibility,” the president should “grovel for forgiveness.”

The party on this day resumed a daily one-person protest outside the presidential office, claiming that Yoon was turning the country into a “dictatorship of prosecutors.”


‘Stop politicizing grief’

“As the entire country grieves for the loss of the young people, we have a lot to do from fixing the broken system to legislating to raising the budget,” said the ruling People Power Party’s interim chair Rep. Chung Jin-suk. “I hope that this task of making our country safer will not get bogged down by partisan squabbling.”

Rep. Rep. Sung Il-jong, the head of the party’s policy planning committee, accused the Democratic Party of “an inappropriately strategic maneuver.”

“It was found that ex-Lee Jae-myung campaign officials as well as some former and current Democratic Party lawmakers have been holding an impeachment rally every weekend,” he said. “Then the organizers of the anti-Yoon rallies have turned their weekly rallies into vigils for the Itaewon victims.”

He went on to add, “This tragedy should not be used to advance political objectives.”

On Monday, the ruling People Power Party launched a task force for investigating the Itaewon disaster and building public safety plans.

Senior police executive-turned-lawmaker Rep. Lee Man-hee, who leads the task force, said that they would “immediately begin work” to devise measures to support and compensate the victims, hold those who are responsible accountable, and build a system to prevent similar events from taking place.

Rep. Cho Eun-hee, one of the lawmakers on the task force, pointed out the national emergency communications network – on which the last administration had spent 1.5 trillion won ($1 billion) to create as one of the post-Sewol disaster policies -- had failed to work this time.

“The calls for help started coming in four hours before the disaster, and yet the communications network failed to operate,” she said. “The task force will find out what went wrong and fix them.”

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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