Lee Sang-min held responsible by parliament for alleged bungled response to Halloween crowd crush that killed 159 people.
South Korean politicians have voted to impeach interior minister Lee Sang-min over his responses to a deadly Halloween crush last October, setting the stage for him to become the first cabinet member removed by the legislature.
As many as 159 people were killed and 196 injured in the October 29 incident, when revellers flooded narrow alleyways in the popular nightlife district of Itaewon to enjoy the first coronavirus mask-free Halloween festivities in three years.
Wednesday’s motion passed by a widely expected margin of 179 to 109 in a secret ballot in the 300-member single chamber, where the main opposition Democratic Party has a 169-seat majority.
The motion needed support from at least 150 members to pass.
The Democrats and other opposition parties had pushed for the expulsion of the interior minister urging him to take responsibility for botched responses to the crush.
“I will fully cooperate with the constitutional court’s impeachment trial so that the ministry of interior and safety can be normalised at an early date,” the minister said in a statement.
The impeachment suspends Lee from his duties and the country’s Constitutional Court has 180 days to rule on whether to unseat him for good or give him back the job, a process that could take up to six months.
Vice Minister Han Chang-seob will step in as acting minister until the Constitutional Court decides on Lee’s fate.
President slams ‘shameful’ parliamentary politics
President Yoon Suk-yeol, who counts Lee as a key ally, had rejected the opposition’s demand that he sack the interior minister, and his office and ruling party denounced the Democrats for abusing their majority power to press ahead with the impeachment.
“It is the renunciation of parliamentary democracy,” Yoon’s office said in a statement after the motion passed. “It will be recorded as a shameful history in parliamentary politics.”
Lee’s impeachment came weeks after police announced they are seeking criminal charges, including involuntary manslaughter and negligence, against 23 officials, about half of them law enforcement officers, for a lack of safety measures they said were responsible for the crowd crush in Itaewon, a major nightlife district in Seoul.
The case also highlights the growing impasse Yoon faces in a parliament controlled by his liberal opponents and could further intensify the country’s partisan political fighting that has fuelled a national divide.
A presidential official said there was no evidence that the minister had severely violated the constitution or any law.
Lee faced huge criticism shortly after the crowd crush after he insisted that having more police and emergency personnel on the ground still wouldn’t have prevented the tragedy in Itaewon, in what was seen as an attempt to sidestep questions about the lack of preventive measures.
Despite anticipating a crowd of more than 100,000, Seoul police had assigned 137 officers to Itaewon on the day of the crush. Those officers were focused on monitoring narcotics use and violent crimes, which experts say left few resources for pedestrian safety.
Some experts have called the crush in Itaewon a “man-made disaster” that could have been prevented with fairly simple steps, such as employing more police and public workers to monitor bottleneck points, enforcing one-way walk lanes and blocking narrow pathways or temporarily closing Itaewon’s subway station to prevent large numbers of people moving in the same direction.
Tension flared this week between the Seoul government and families of the crush victims after they set up an unauthorised memorial in front of city hall. On Tuesday, city officials said the memorial violated rules and ordered its removal in a week.
In 2017, President Park Geun-hye became South Korea’s first elected leader to be expelled from office when the Constitutional Court upheld her impeachment. The court dismissed an impeachment motion in 2004 for President Roh Moo-hyun.
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