Yoon censures police for bungled response to Itaewon tragedy

November 7, 2022

President Yoon Suk-yeol issued scathing criticism of the police on Monday for their bungled response to the Itaewon crowd crush, saying he can’t understand why police did little to avert the tragedy when they knew a massive crowd was gathering.

Yoon made the remarks while presiding over a government-civilian meeting held to review crowd control and other safety regulations in the wake of the tragedy that killed 156 people on Oct. 29, according to deputy presidential spokesperson Lee Jae-myoung.

“It appears that if people started to gather early in the evening at around 5:40 or 5:50 and the first 112 call came in at 6:34, the situation must have been like hell,” Lee quoted Yoon as saying. 112 is the number of the police hotline. “How can you say in that situation that police had no authority?”

Yoon went on to point out that the tragedy happened on a sidewalk right next to a main road and that the road should have been blocked if crowd levels reached a dangerous point.

“Who is responsible for preventing safety accidents? The police,” he said, noting that fire authorities are largely responsible for providing emergency medical services although they also play a part in accident prevention.

“I think it’s beyond common sense that the police were not aware that more people were expected to come. Our police are not such rubbish police,” he continued. “They have remarkable information capabilities, so why were they watching blankly for four hours? They were at the scene. They should have taken action even if there was no call to 112. How can you say you couldn’t respond because of poor systems? Did the Itaewon tragedy happen because of poor systems? I can’t understand.”

Yoon acknowledged that the president serves as the “safety control tower” but that in order to be effective, it is important for authorities to report a situation promptly.

The remarks relayed by the deputy spokesperson were made during parts of the meeting that were held behind closed doors.

During the opening, which was open to the press, Yoon issued his first formal apology to the nation over the tragedy and promised to punish those responsible.

“I dare not compare myself to the parents who lost their sons and daughters, but as the president who should protect the people’s lives and safety, I grieve and my heart is heavy,” Yoon said. “I am apologetic and sorry to the bereaved families who are facing an indescribable tragedy and to the nation that is sharing in the pain and sadness.”

Yoon renewed his call on the government to handle the aftermath of the tragedy in a responsible manner, and to improve existing anti-disaster and safety regulations to make the nation safer.

“We need major innovations in the way police prepare against risks and prevent accidents in order to protect the people’s safety,” he said. “I will make sure the truth is thoroughly determined regarding this tragedy and disclose the process to the public in a transparent manner that leaves not a trace of doubt.”

Yoon did not mention how he will uncover the truth, but the police have been conducting an internal inspection and investigation into what went wrong in its handling of the disaster.

Yoon said he will ” strictly demand accountability from those responsible” in line with results.

Monday’s meeting brought together Cabinet members, including the prime minister, finance minister and interior minister, the police chief, civilian experts on disaster and safety issues, front-line police and firefighting officials, and the ruling People Power Party’s chief policymaker.

Participants reviewed the current anti-disaster guidelines and necessary improvements, including those related to crowd control, the 112 and 119 emergency hotlines and emerging risks in a digitally connected society, according to the presidential office.

Some called for strengthening disciplinary action against belated reporting to superiors and absence from duty, increasing authorities’ command over a scene, and establishing a science-based safety management system that relies on information technology, not personal experience and capabilities, it said.

President Yoon Suk-yeol presides over a government-civilian meeting on national safety regulations at the presidential office in Seoul on Nov. 7, 2022. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk-yeol presides over a government-civilian meeting on national safety regulations at the presidential office in Seoul on Nov. 7, 2022. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)