South Korea’s Constitutional Court on Tuesday overturned the impeachment of the public safety minister ousted over a Halloween crowd surge that killed nearly 160 people last October at a nightlife district in the capital, Seoul.
The court’s decision allows Lee Sang-min to return as the minister of the interior and safety. Vice Minister Han Chang-seob has served as acting minister since February when South Korea’s opposition-controlled parliament voted to impeach Lee, saying he should be held responsible for the government’s failure to employ effective crowd control measures and its botched emergency response, which contributed to the high death toll in Itaewon.
Lee, 58, is seen as a key ally of conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol, whose office welcomed the decision and had accused the opposition liberals of creating “shameful history” by pushing for his impeachment.
In rejecting the parliamentary impeachment of Lee, the court said he could not be held chiefly responsible for the crowd crush, which it said reflected broader failures across different government organizations to “develop a combined ability to respond to large-scale disasters.”
There’s not enough evidence to prove that Lee failed to carry out his legal and constitutional duties as a government official to protect the safety and lives of citizens, the court said.
Lee was the first Cabinet minister impeached by the National Assembly, which previously impeached conservative President Park Geun-hye in 2016. The Constitutional Court formally removed Park from office in March 2017 by upholding lawmakers’ decision to impeach her. She was imprisoned for corruption before her liberal successor, Moon Jae-in, pardoned her in December 2021.
Following a 74-day investigation into the crowd crush in January, a special investigation team led by the National Police Agency concluded that police and municipal officials in Seoul’s Yongsan district failed to plan out effective crowd control measures despite correctly anticipating huge crowds of Halloween revelers in Itaewon.
Police also ignored hotline calls placed by pedestrians who warned of swelling crowds before the surge turned deadly on Oct. 28. Officials also botched their response before people began getting toppled over and crushed in a narrow alley near Hamilton Hotel and failed to establish control of the scene and allow paramedics to reach the injured in time, according to the investigation.
Police have pursued criminal charges, including involuntary manslaughter and negligence, against 23 officials — about half of them law enforcement officers — over the lack of crowd controls and safety measures in Itaewon.
But critics, including opposition politicians and families of the victims, have claimed that police investigators went soft on the higher members of Yoon’s government, including Lee and National Policy Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun, who had faced calls to resign.
Despite anticipating a crowd of more than 100,000, Seoul police had assigned 137 officers to Itaewon on the day of the crush. Some experts have called the crush in Itaewon a “manmade disaster” that could have been prevented with fairly simple steps, such as employing more police and public workers to monitor bottleneck points, enforcing one-way walk lanes and blocking narrow pathways.
Lee faced huge criticism shortly after the crowd crush after he insisted that having more police and emergency personnel on the ground still wouldn’t have prevented the tragedy in Itaewon, in what was seen as an attempt to sidestep questions about the lack of preventive measures.
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