SEOUL — A year has elapsed since a crowd crush in an alley in central Seoul's Itaewon claimed 159 lives, sparking an ongoing debate about governmental responsibility, administrative efficacy, and social justice. Despite the gravity of the incident, questions around accountability remain unanswered, and criticisms are being directed at the highest levels of government.
According to Yonhap News Agency, the disaster could have been averted had there been effective governing mechanisms and administrative systems in place. Neither the police, nor central and local governments executed their responsibilities adequately. Subsequent to the tragedy, officials engaged in blame shifting, and after internal police investigations, no high-ranking officials have been held accountable.
President Yoon Suk Yeol remarked, following the incident, that accountability should be correctly placed and that recklessly holding anyone responsible is not permissible in modern society. His administration has punished some lower-level officials while sparing others.
Since 2017, the size of Halloween crowds in Itaewon has been on the rise. Working-level officials, sensing the risk, had requested preventive measures from their superiors, but these calls went unanswered. On the night of the disaster, the national police chief and the district head were not in Seoul but were attending personal and political events in the provinces.
At a parliamentary hearing, National Policy Agency Commissioner Yoon Hee-keun questioned the expectations of his role, asking if a police chief can't have private time on weekends. Similarly, Yongsan District head Park Hee-young later stated that he was not omniscient. Both statements have attracted public scrutiny.
Further adding to the criticism, Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min took an hour and a half to arrive at the scene, despite living a mere 15 minutes away. A recent report by KBS revealed that higher officials were more concerned with political ramifications than mitigating the disaster.
The president recently skipped a memorial ceremony co-organized by bereaved families and four opposition parties, with the presidential office stating that the event was "politicized." This has led to widespread public sentiment that the government is not addressing the aftermath of the disaster adequately.
Editorials and public opinion are now increasingly calling for a more comprehensive approach to justice and governance, including the enactment of the Itaewon Special Law, punishing high-ranking officials, and a formal apology from President Yoon. According to the editorial, these steps are essential for healing and unifying a nation still grappling with the consequences of a preventable tragedy.