SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean police are seeking manslaughter and negligence charges against 23 officials, including law enforcement officials, for lack of security measures they say were responsible for last year’s surge in crowds that killed nearly 160 people.
Despite anticipating a crowd of more than 100,000 on Halloween weekend, Seoul police deployed 137 officers to the capital’s Itaewon nightlife district on the day of the disturbance. These officers focused on monitoring drug use and violent crime, which experts say left little resources for pedestrian safety.
Son Je-han, who led the National Police Agency’s special investigation into the incident, said on Friday that his team would now refer the case to prosecutors. Among those recommended for indictment are Park Hee-young, who is the mayor of Seoul’s Yongsan District, and former county police chief Lee Im-jae, two of the six arrested.
The results of the 74-day police investigation announced by Son mostly confirmed what was already clear – that police and government officials in Yongsan failed to apply meaningful crowd control measures to the expected number of Halloween revelers and essentially ignored pedestrian calls to police hotlines that warned of the growing crowd hours before the wave turned deadly on October 29.
Officials also botched their response as people began to fall and crush in a narrow alley clogged with partygoers near the Hamilton Hotel around 10 p.m., unable to ensure effective control of the scene and allow first responders to reach the injured in time, Son said.
“Inaccurate assessment of the situation, slow dissemination of information about the situation, poor cooperation between related institutions and delays in rescue operations were among the overlapping failures that resulted in a large number of casualties,” Son said at a news conference in Seoul.
It is unclear whether the results of the police investigation will be enough to appease public anger and demands for government accountability as the country continues to grapple with its worst disaster in nearly a decade.
Opposition lawmakers and some relatives of the victims demanded an investigation into more high-profile figures such as Home and Security Minister Lee Sang-min and National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun who were called to resign.
However, Son said a special investigation team would close investigations at the Ministry of Interior and Security, the National Police Agency and the Seoul Seoul Metropolitan Government, saying it was difficult to determine their direct responsibility.
Some experts have called the congestion in Itaewon a “man-made disaster” that could have been prevented with fairly simple steps, such as hiring more police officers and public employees to monitor bottlenecks, enforcing one-way lanes and blocking narrow paths, or temporarily closing subway stations Itaewon to prevent large numbers of people from moving in the same direction.