S. Korea parliament approves new probes into crowd crush, marine's death

By AFP   May 2, 2024 | 07:32 pm PT
S. Korea parliament approves new probes into crowd crush, marine's death
Police blocked the alley where the stampede tragedy occurred during a Halloween festival in Seoul, South Korea, on the evening of October 29, 2022. Photo by Reuters
South Korea's parliament on Thursday passed a bill to set up a new probe into a deadly 2022 Halloween crowd crush which left more than 150 mostly young people dead.

Tens of thousands of people had gathered on October 29, 2022, to enjoy the first post-pandemic holiday celebrations in Seoul's popular Itaewon nightlife district.

But the night turned deadly when revellers poured into a narrow, sloping alleyway between bars and clubs, with a lack of effective crowd control measures leading to a crowd crush in which 158 people died and hundreds were injured.

The parliament -- which is controlled by the opposition who secured a landslide victory in April legislative elections -- passed the bill in a bipartisan manner with 256 votes in favour, three abstentions, and no opposing votes.

President Yoon Suk Yeol vetoed a similar bill that had been passed without the support of his party in January.

This time, the parties reached a compromise by amending the earlier bill to remove direct investigative power from the nine-member panel looking at the disaster, a task which could last up to 15 months.

The bill to establish a fresh probe follows the convictions of two former senior police officers in February for destroying evidence linked to the crush –- the first police officials to be sentenced over the disaster.

Kim Kwang-ho, the former head of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, is on trial facing professional negligence charges.

The ex-police chief denied wrongdoing, telling the court on Monday: "Instead of seeking a scapegoat, real preventive measures should be carried out", broadcaster JTBC reported.

District-level officials have been prosecuted over the disaster, but no high-ranking members of the government have resigned or faced prosecution, despite criticism from victims' families over a lack of accountability.

Marine death probe

Also on Thursday, in a 168-0 vote which was largely boycotted by the ruling party, the parliament passed a bill to open a special probe into the military's handling of a young marine's death last year.

The 20-year-old died during flood relief work, with reports saying he had not been given a life jacket.

The incident became an electoral liability for the ruling People Power Party (PPP) after Seoul's former defence minister was appointed ambassador to Australia while still under investigation. He later stepped down.

Lawmaker Yun Jae-ok, the PPP's floor leader, said he will have no choice but to ask Yoon to veto the bill.

The presidential office expressed "great regret" over the passing of the bill related to the marine, criticising it as politically motivated and exploiting the victim's death.

"The Presidential Office will respond sternly in the future," Chung Jin-suk, the presidential chief of staff, told reporters.

South Korea's rapid transformation from a war-torn country to Asia's fourth-largest economy and a global cultural powerhouse is a source of national pride.

But a series of preventable accidents and disasters involving young people -- such as the 2022 crush and the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking that killed 304 people -- has shaken public confidence in authorities.

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