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Presidential office unhappy with Assembly probe into Itaewon tragedy

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Ruling People Power Party floor leader Joo Ho-young, center, speaks during a party meeting at the National Assembly on Yeouido, Seoul, Friday. Yonhap
Ruling People Power Party floor leader Joo Ho-young, center, speaks during a party meeting at the National Assembly on Yeouido, Seoul, Friday. Yonhap

By Nam Hyun-woo

The presidential office and President Yoon Suk-yeol's loyalists are showing signs of displeasure over the ruling People Power Party's (PPP) agreement to launch a National Assembly probe into the Oct. 29 Itaewon crowd crush, a decision that could potentially see the presidential office and other government agencies subject to investigation.

As a result, there are mounting doubts in the presidential office over whether it is on the same page as the ruling party regarding the issue.

Signs of internal strife within the ruling party are already being observed, with some lawmakers close to Yoon expressing their complaints concerning PPP floor leader Rep. Joo Ho-young's agreement with the main opposition party to launch the parliamentary investigation after the government's 2023 budget passes the Assembly.

After the PPP's interim leadership committee meeting on Friday at the Assembly, Joo told reporters, "Our agreement does not mean we like this way."

He added, "Personally, I thought that we should oppose the investigation, but had to make the unwanted agreement in order to stop the main opposition party from carrying out the probe unilaterally."

The comments came a day after the Assembly passed a blueprint for the parliamentary probe on the Itaewon crowd crush, which killed at least 158 people who were enjoying Halloween festivities in central Seoul's Itaewon on Oct. 29. With 254 out of 300 Assembly members attending, 220 approved, 13 opposed and 21 abstained.

The rival parties had been butting heads over the investigation, as the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) insisted that it should target the relevant government agencies and the presidential office, while the PPP claimed that the probe would not be necessary because separate police investigations are already looking into those in charge of crowd and safety management.

Against this backdrop, the DPK, which alone holds a majority in the Assembly, joined forces with two minor liberal parties and attempted to pass the probe bill without the consensus of the PPP.

To maintain the party's presence in the probe, Joo and his DPK counterpart, Rep. Park Hong-keun, agreed to a compromise plan, which would kick off a 45-day investigation from Thursday to Jan. 7 next year, but conduct hearings and other investigative activities only after the National Assembly passes the national budget for next year.

Also, some agencies of the presidential office, including the Presidential Security Service, were excluded from the focus of the probe.

Senior presidential secretary for political affairs Lee Jin-bok speaks during a meeting with ruling People Power Party interim leader Rep. Chung Jin-suk, (not visible in the photo), at the National Assembly on Yeouido, Seoul, in this Sept. 14 file photo. Korea Times photo by Oh Dae-keun
Senior presidential secretary for political affairs Lee Jin-bok speaks during a meeting with ruling People Power Party interim leader Rep. Chung Jin-suk, (not visible in the photo), at the National Assembly on Yeouido, Seoul, in this Sept. 14 file photo. Korea Times photo by Oh Dae-keun

However, Lee Jin-bok, the senior presidential secretary for political affairs, expressed the office's discomfort over the PPP's agreement.

"Summoning (officials of) government agencies that are not related to the incident is somewhat off the purpose of the probe," he told reporters on Thursday.

When asked whether he was aware of the agreement made before the floor leaders' announcement, Lee said "not the entirety of the agreement." To a question asking his thoughts on "many agencies of the presidential office being exempted from the investigation," he expressed his disagreement and said only the Presidential Security Service was exempted from the probe.

Though the PPP floor leader said, Friday, that "the party is communicating well" with the presidential office, signs of discontent were observed, as most of the 13 lawmakers who opposed the plan during the plenary session's voting were described as Yoon loyalists. Rep. Chang Je-won, who was chief of staff for Yoon when he was the president-elect, and Rep. Yoon Han-hong, known as one of the closest lawmakers to Yoon, were among the 13.

Including them, a number of lawmakers in the party's Yoon loyalist faction have already raised their voices against Joo over his decision to leave senior presidential secretary for public relations Kim Eun-hye out of an Assembly audit on the presidential office earlier this month.

At the time, Kim was mired in controversy after photographs captured her scribbling the words "this is really ridiculous" on a notepad while a DPK lawmaker was asking questions.




Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr


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