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Main opposition party seeks safety minister's dismissal over Itaewon tragedy

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Main opposition Democratic Party of Korea floor leader Park Hong-keun announces the party's plan to table a motion demanding President Yoon Suk-yeol to dismiss Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min over the Itaewon crowd crush, during a press conference at the National Assembly in Yeouido, Seoul, Wednesday. Yonhap
Main opposition Democratic Party of Korea floor leader Park Hong-keun announces the party's plan to table a motion demanding President Yoon Suk-yeol to dismiss Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min over the Itaewon crowd crush, during a press conference at the National Assembly in Yeouido, Seoul, Wednesday. Yonhap

By Nam Hyun-woo

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) tabled a motion, Wednesday, demanding President Yoon Suk-yeol to dismiss Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min, holding him accountable for the Itaewon crowd crush on Oct. 29, which killed 158 people enjoying Halloween festivities in the bustling entertainment district of Seoul.

However, the presidential office has already signaled its intention to reject the opposition party's demand, saying that tabling such a motion means that the DPK is not following an agreement with rival parties to a National Assembly investigation into the government over the tragedy, and called on the DPK to pursue the probe alone.

"The DPK will table a motion requesting President Yoon to dismiss Safety Minister Lee today and will approve it during a National Assembly plenary session this week," DPK floor leader Rep. Park Hong-keun said during a press conference on Wednesday. "If Lee does not resign or the president rejects the motion, the DPK will table an impeachment motion next week to finish reprimanding the minister."

Following the announcement, the DPK's Reps. Wi Seong-gon and Lee Soo-jin submitted the motion to the Assembly.

The country's Constitution allows the National Assembly to pass "a recommendation" requesting the president to remove the prime minister or Cabinet members. Since the DPK controls more than half of the parliamentary seats, the party alone can pass the motion at the upcoming plenary session.

The National Assembly Act stipulates that the speaker of the Assembly should report the motion in the first plenary session that takes place after the proposition is tabled. The motion will be put to a vote 24 hours after the report. Given this, the motion on the safety minister will likely be addressed during plenary sessions slated for Dec. 1 and 2.

Although it is non-binding, the motion is expected to add pressure on the president. Before the Yoon presidency, there have been six cases in which the Assembly passed a motion to impeach a minister, five of which have actually resulted in their removal.

This is the second time so far during the Yoon administration that the DPK tabled a motion demanding the president to dismiss a Cabinet member.

In September, the party tabled a motion requesting Yoon to sack Foreign Minister Park Jin citing "diplomatic gaffes and setbacks" during the president's trip to New York that month. Yoon rejected the request, just a day after the DPK unilaterally passed the motion at the National Assembly.

Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min speaks during a Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters meeting at Government Complex in Gwanghwamun, Seoul, Wednesday. Yonhap
Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min speaks during a Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters meeting at Government Complex in Gwanghwamun, Seoul, Wednesday. Yonhap

The DPK says, however, that the motion on the safety minister carries more political significance than the previous one targeting the foreign minister.

"Although the aftermath of the Itaewon tragedy is still ongoing, no one from the Yoon administration is taking responsibility and is blaming others," the DPK floor leader said.

"If Minister Lee holds on to the position, it will be impossible to have a fair parliamentary probe or police investigations into the tragedy. How can officials from police and fire agencies testify properly while their supervisor is watching?"

The DPK and the ruling People Power Party (PPP) agreed on Nov. 23 to conduct the parliamentary probe into the government and the presidential office over the Itaewon crowd crush. The PPP initially opposed the probe, but agreed on condition that the actual hearing and investigations begin after the Assembly passes next year's national budget.

"Proper investigations into those who are accountable for the tragedy start from Lee's dismissal," Park said. "President Yoon should stop confronting the national sentiment and have the minister take responsibility."

Although the motion has yet to be put to a vote at the National Assembly, Yoon is anticipated to reject it.

"The reason for the National Assembly investigation is to reveal the truth regarding the incident," an official at the presidential office said. "However, demanding the president to dismiss Minister Lee before the investigation begins can be interpreted as reaching a certain conclusion even before we find the truth."

The presidential office believes that the DPK's demand to dismiss the safety minister shows that the party has no interest in a proper investigation and may opt to refuse any requests related to the parliamentary probe.

The ruling party is also signaling that it may boycott the investigation

"With the DPK breaking the agreement and showing its intent to exploit the parliamentary probe for political purposes, there is a chance of us boycotting the probe," PPP spokesperson Rep. Jang Dong-hyeok said during a radio interview with broadcaster MBC.


Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr


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