South Korea’s opposition-controlled parliament on Wednesday voted to impeach the country’s interior and safety minister, Lee Sang-min, holding him responsible for government failures in disaster planning and the response that likely contributed to the high death toll in a crowd crush that killed nearly 160 people in October.
The impeachment suspends Mr. Lee from his duties and the country’s Constitutional Court has 180 days to rule on whether to unseat him for good or give him back the job.
Vice Minister Han Chang-seob will step in as acting minister until the Constitutional Court decides on Mr. Lee’s fate.
Mr. Lee is seen as a key ally of conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol, whose office issued an irritated response to his impeachment, accusing opposition lawmakers of abandoning legislative principles and creating “shameful history.”
Mr. Lee issued a statement expressing regret after lawmakers voted 179-109 in favor of impeaching him and said he would defend his case in the Constitutional Court.
“(I) hope that the vacuum in public safety (management) created by this unprecedented situation would be minimised,” Mr. Lee said.
Mr. Lee is the first ever South Korean Cabinet minister to be impeached by the National Assembly. Lawmakers had previously impeached former conservative President Park Geun-hye in December 2016. Three months later she was formally removed from office by the Constitutional Court and arrested over a huge corruption scandal.
Mr. Lee’s impeachment highlights the growing impasse Mr. Yoon faces in a parliament controlled by his liberal opponents and could further intensify the country’s partisan political fighting that has fueled a national divide.
Mr. Lee’s impeachment came weeks after police announced they are seeking criminal charges, including involuntary manslaughter and negligence, against 23 officials, about half of them law enforcement officers, for a lack of safety measures they said were responsible for the crowd crush in Itaewon, a major nightlife district in Seoul.
Following a 74-day inquiry into the incident, a special investigation team led by the National Police Agency concluded that police and public officials in Seoul’s Yongsan district failed to employ meaningful crowd control measures despite anticipating huge gatherings of Halloween revelers. They also ignored pedestrian calls placed to police hotlines that warned of a swelling crowd hours before the surge turned deadly on October 28.
Officials also botched their response once people began getting toppled over and crushed in a narrow alley clogged with partygoers near Hamilton Hotel around 10 p.m., failing to establish effective control of the scene and allow rescue workers to reach the injured in time.
However, opposition politicians claimed that police investigators went soft on higher members of Mr. Yoon’s government, including Mr. Lee and National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun, who were facing calls to resign.
The police investigators said they had closed their probes on Mr. Lee’s ministry and the National Police Agency before handing over the case to prosecutors, saying it was difficult to establish the direct responsibility of those offices.
Oh Yeong-hwan, lawmaker and spokesperson for the main opposition Democratic Party, said lawmakers “carried out the order of the people” in impeaching Mr. Lee, who he said should be held responsible for the deadly crowd surge in Itaewon. He criticized Yoon for sticking with Mr. Lee in the face of mounting calls for his removal.
“The National Assembly had to hold (Mr. Lee) to account, because President Yoon Suk Yeol refused to accept that responsibility,” Oh said.
Lawmaker Jang Dong-hyuk of Yoon’s People’s Power Party accused the opposition of “tramping on (South Korea’s) constitutional order,” insisting that Lee was impeached without a justifiable cause.
He insisted that the liberals were motivated by political vendetta against Yoon as prosecutors under his government push forward an investigation into corruption allegations surrounding Democratic Party Chairman Lee Jae-myung, a firebrand lawmaker who narrowly lost to Yoon in last year’s presidential elections.
Lee Sang-min 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.
Despite anticipating a crowd of more than 100,000, Seoul police had assigned 137 officers to Itaewon on the day of the crush. Those officers were focused on monitoring narcotics use and violent crimes, which experts say left few resources for pedestrian safety.
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 or temporarily closing Itaewon’s subway station to prevent large numbers of people moving in the same direction.