May 23, 2024

Victims’ families have demanded independent investigation into disaster that killed more than 150 people.

South Korea’s parliament has passed a bill for a new, independent investigation into the 2022 Halloween crush in the capital, Seoul, that killed more than 150 people.

The single-chamber, opposition-led National Assembly on Thursday approved the measure in a bipartisan vote with 256 in favour, three abstentions, and no opposition. It will become law once signed by President Yoon Suk-yeol, which is considered a formality.

The legislation will create a fact-finding committee of nine members who will look into the cause of the crush, how the authorities handled it, and who should be blamed, a process that could last up to 15 months.

The crush took place on October 29, 2002, when revellers flooded the narrow alleyways of Seoul’s popular nightlife district of Itaewon to celebrate the first Halloween free of COVID-19 curbs in three years. Nearly 200 people were injured in the ensuing surge, with most of the victims in their 20s and 30s.

Anger that the government ignored safety and regulatory issues mounted in the aftermath of the disaster.

Police faced strong public criticism and scrutiny over their response, having dispatched just 137 officers to the area despite estimating in advance as many as 100,000 people would gather.

In 2023, a special police investigation concluded that police and municipal officials failed to formulate effective crowd control steps.

Investigators also said police had ignored hotline calls by pedestrians who warned of swelling crowds before the surge turned deadly.

Bereaved families and opposition lawmakers have repeatedly called for an independent probe as few have been held accountable for the incident, despite more than 20 police and other officials on trial.

In January, prosecutors charged Kim Kwang-ho, the former head of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, for negligence by failing to ensure there were enough officers at the scene. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Two former senior police officers were sentenced in February for destroying evidence linked to the crush.

According to the new bill, once the committee determines who is responsible and who should face charges, it would report them to the government’s investigation agencies. The agencies would then conclude investigations of the suspects within three months.

An earlier bill, which was backed by the opposition-led parliament, was vetoed by Yoon in January because of disputes over the panel’s powers, such as whether the fact-finding committee can request arrest warrants.

However, at a meeting on Monday with opposition leader Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party, Yoon said he would not oppose the bill should the disputes be resolved.

Yoon’s shift comes as he faces growing public calls to cooperate with Lee’s party, which secured a landslide victory in the April 10 elections.

In a meeting with Yoon’s ruling People Power Party on Wednesday, Lee’s party agreed to remove contentious clauses from the draft bill, including granting full investigative power to the panel.

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