May 24, 2024

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s parliament on Thursday approved special legislation mandating a new, independent investigation into the 2022 Halloween crush in Seoul that killed 159 people.

The single-chamber National Assembly passed the bill by a 256-0 vote. It will become law after it is signed by conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol and promulgated by his government agency — steps that are considered formalities because the president and his ruling party already agreed on the legislation.

The bill is meant to delve into the root cause of the crush, and look at how authorities handled the disaster and who should be blamed for it. It envisages the creation of a fact-finding committee with nine members that would independently examine the disaster for up to 15 months.

Once the committee determines who is responsible and who should face charges, it would report them to the government’s investigation agencies. The agencies would then be required to conclude investigations of the suspects within three months, according to the bill.

The crush, one of the biggest peacetime disasters in South Korea, caused a nationwide outpouring of grief. The victims, who were mostly in their 20s and 30s, had gathered in Seoul’s popular nightlife district of Itaewon for Halloween celebrations.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, there was also anger that the government had again ignored safety and regulatory issues despite the lessons learned since the 2014 sinking of the ferry Sewol, which killed 304 people — mostly teenagers on a school trip.

In early 2023, a police special investigation concluded that police and municipal officials failed to formulate effective crowd control steps, despite correctly anticipating a huge number of people in Itaewon. At the time, investigators said police had also ignored hotline calls by pedestrians who warned of swelling crowds before the surge turned deadly.

More than 20 police and other officials have been on trial over the disaster but few top-level officials have been charged or held accountable, prompting bereaved families and opposition lawmakers to call for an independent probe.

Ahead of the vote, Kim Kyo-heung from the main liberal opposition Democratic Party and chairman of parliament’s safety committee expressed hope the probe would determine responsibility for the disaster and structural problems behind the crush, as well as formulate steps to prevent similar disasters.

Families of the victims welcomed the bill while rallying outside the National Assembly.

“I think today is indeed the most memorable day for our bereaved families,” said Lee Jeong-min, a representative for the families. “It wasn’t possible without the support of opposition lawmakers and many citizens who have sympathized with us. I’d like to say we really thank them.”

President Yoon had previously opposed a new investigation of the disaster. In January, he vetoed a similar bill for an independent investigation of the Itaewon crush that had passed through parliament.

However, during a meeting with Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung Monday, he said he wouldn’t oppose it, should some existing disputes be resolved, such as whether the fact-finding committee can request arrest warrants.

A shift in Yoon’s position came as he faces growing public calls to cooperate with Lee’s party, which scored a massive win in the April 10 parliamentary election, extending its control of parliament for another four years.

In a meeting with Yoon’s ruling People Power Party on Wednesday, Lee’s party agreed to remove contentious clauses from the draft bill.

The Democratic Party’s chief policymaker, Jin Sung-joon, said the party had accepted demands by the president and his ruling party in the interest of the “bereaved families, who said they can’t wait any longer.”


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