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Interior minister further cornered over responsibility in Itaewon tragedy

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Members of the Korean Government Employees' Union hold a press conference in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, Monday, demanding the dismissal of Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min for his ministry's poor response to the Oct. 29 Halloween crowd crush disaster. Yonhap
Members of the Korean Government Employees' Union hold a press conference in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, Monday, demanding the dismissal of Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min for his ministry's poor response to the Oct. 29 Halloween crowd crush disaster. Yonhap

By Lee Hyo-jin

Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min is finding himself in deeper trouble as unionized civil servants and opposition lawmakers are strongly demanding his dismissal over the government's bungled response to the deadly Halloween crowd crush disaster on Oct. 29.

The Korean Government Employees' Union (KGEU) on Monday filed a police complaint against Lee, on charges of dereliction of duty and professional negligence resulting in deaths and injuries, as well as the abuse of power. In a press conference held in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, the civil servants demanded that President Yoon Suk-yeol sack Lee.

Since the crowd surge, which occurred in Itaewon, Seoul on the night of Oct. 29, killed at least 159 people, the minister has come under growing criticism over his ministry's lack of proper crowd control management and response to the disaster.

"The fastest way to prevent the recurrence of similar tragedies is the punishment of the interior minister. The police should immediately launch an investigation against him," Jeon Ho-il, head of the union, said during the press conference.

Jeon argued that the interior minister is responsible for supervising safety measures in the case of national disasters or accidents in accordance with the Act on Management of Disaster and Safety.

The civil servants' union also denounced the ministry for hindering a poll process conducted between Nov. 22 and 24 among its members, which found that 84.3 percent of the respondents supported the dismal and punishment of Lee.

In the survey, respondents were asked to rate the government's policies, including a question that asked whether they support the dismissal and punishment of the interior and safety minister over the crowd disaster.

The ministry labeled the poll as an illicit action that goes beyond the labor rights legally guaranteed for civil servants, and warned of disciplinary action against the organizers and participants.

Due to such "threats" by the ministry, only some 38,000 of its 120,000 members were able to participate in the survey, said the union.
Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min presides over a pan-government meeting on the country's disaster and safety management system, held at Government Complex Seoul, Dec. 2. Yonhap
Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min presides over a pan-government meeting on the country's disaster and safety management system, held at Government Complex Seoul, Dec. 2. Yonhap

The civil servants' group action against Lee is the second of its kind following a police complaint filed by unionized firefighters on Nov. 14. The firefighters urged him to step down and demanded a thorough investigation of his alleged negligence in fulfilling his duties.

Pressure on Lee to resign is coming from the political sphere as well, with opposition lawmakers seeking to table a motion calling for the minister's dismissal later this week, following a failed attempt to address it at the plenary session last week.

The Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) had initially submitted the motion on Nov. 30, with plans to put it to a vote at the plenary session the next day. However, the session was postponed to Dec. 8 and 9 due to bipartisan disputes.

"It is common sense and in order for Minister Lee Sang-min to take responsibility for the disaster. If he refuses to resign voluntarily, he must be held accountable in other ways in accordance with the law," said the party's floor leader, Rep. Park Hong-geun, on Monday.

The DPK lawmakers are also considering proposing a stronger impeachment motion. This motion would be tabled after receiving one-third of the Assembly's votes in a plenary session, and then if it receives over half of the votes, the minister would be suspended from duty, with his impeachment to be decided by the Constitutional Court. The motion calling for the minister's dismissal would instead by submitted to President Yoon for his decision.




Lee Hyo-jin lhj@koreatimes.co.kr


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