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Parliament passes bill to impeach safety minister

Lee's fate remains uncertain as he awaits Constitutional court ruling

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : Feb. 8, 2023 - 15:42

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Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min (second from left) is seen attending a Cabinet meeting in Sejong City Tuesday. (Yonhap) Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min (second from left) is seen attending a Cabinet meeting in Sejong City Tuesday. (Yonhap)

South Korea's parliament passed a bill Wednesday to impeach Minister of Interior and Safety, Lee Sang-min, charging him for the "botched response" to the Itaewon crowd crush disaster. Lee is the first Cabinet member in South Korean history to lose his authority through an impeachment bill.

At the National Assembly controlled by the liberal opposition Democratic Party of Korea, the bill passed with 179 votes in favor, 109 votes against and five votes abstained.

For the vote to pass, it required at least half of the votes from all 299 lawmakers. The vote immediately deprived Lee of his authority as safety minister and Vice Minister Han Chang-seob began serving as acting minister following the parliamentary vote.

President Yoon's office lashed out at the passing of the bill, calling it "a forfeiture of parliamentary democracy" and "a shameful record in the history of the parliament."

Lee said he will faithfully prepare for trial at the Constitutional Court.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo also expressed regrets at the result of the vote and asked the Interior Ministry not to be distracted from what is important.

Seeking for parliamentary approval on the impeachment bill, the opposition bloc, comprising 176 lawmakers, accused Lee of breaching the Constitution, the Framework Act on the Management of Disasters and Safety and the State Public Officials Act. They argued that the minister should be held to account for the tragic accident and the bungled response.

Rep. Kim Seung-won of the Democratic Party told Parliament in a speech that Lee committed dereliction of duty by turning a blind eye to the projections of a crowd surge during Halloween weekend before the disaster, failing to report it in time to President Yoon Suk Yeol, appearing belatedly at the scene of the disaster and leaving without specific orders, delivering senseless remarks to bereaved families, and committing perjury during the parliamentary audit.

"An utterly botched response to the disaster left 159 dead and 320 injured," Kim said, speaking the names of every victim. "The public trust toward Lee is at its lowest point, leaving Lee unable to carry out his duties as a minister,"

National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin-pyo hits a gavel on Wednesday announcing the passage of a bill to impeach Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min. (Yonhap) National Assembly Speaker Kim Jin-pyo hits a gavel on Wednesday announcing the passage of a bill to impeach Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min. (Yonhap)

Despite the approval, the fate of the minister remains uncertain, pending a decision by the Constitutional Court for a review of its legality.

At the Constitutional Court, Rep. Kim Do-eup of the ruling People Power Party, who serves as the chairman of the Legislation and Judiciary Committee of the National Assembly, is to make the case against him.

It remains unclear whether the court will support the impeachment vote as the judges will examine whether Lee has violated the law regarding the government's response to the Itaewon disaster. The ruling People Power Party has defended Lee, stating that the minister was declared to not be held legally accountable for the disaster by a special police probe. The prosecution likewise did not indict Lee.

Police, instead, pressed charges against 23 police officers, firefighters and public servants, mostly at the district level.

Observers also point out a possible delay in a Constitutional Court ruling due to absences. Two of the nine judges are set to leave their post later this year in March and April, respectively, meaning that it would take some time to fill their seats.

Lee has served as interior minister since May 2022 under the conservative Yoon Suk Yeol administration.

The motion to impeach Lee was proposed Monday by the opposition bloc, holding the top official in charge of national safety accountable for the Itaewon crowd crush in October last year that claimed 159 lives.

Prior to the proposal, the Democratic Party, led by embattled Rep. Lee Jae-myung, staged a demonstration in central Seoul on Saturday with some 100 lawmakers there voicing criticism against the Yoon administration and demanding the dismissal of the interior minister.

So far, parliament has passed impeachment bills on two presidents -- Roh Moo-hyun and Park Geun-hye in 2004 and 2016, respectively. The Constitutional Court rejected Roh's impeachment, but ruled in favor of the bill on Park which immediately ousted her from office.