May 23, 2024

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s parliament on Thursday approved legislation mandating a new, independent investigation into the 2022 Halloween crush in Seoul that killed 159 people.

The single-chamber National Assembly passed the bill by a 256-0 vote. It will become law after it is signed by President Yoon Suk Yeol and promulgated by his government agency — steps that are considered formalities because the president and his ruling party already agreed on the legislation.

The bill is meant to delve into the root cause of the crush, details about how authorities handled the disaster and who should be blamed for it. It also envisages the creation of a fact-finding committee with nine members that would independently examine the disaster for up to 15 months.

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, according to the bill.

The crush, one of the biggest peacetime disasters in South Korea, caused a nationwide outpouring of grief. The victims, who were mostly in their 20s and 30s, had gathered in Seoul’s popular nightlife district of Itaewon for Halloween celebrations.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, there was also anger that the government had again ignored safety and regulatory issues despite the lessons learned since the 2014 sinking of the ferry Sewol, which killed 304 people — mostly teenagers on a school trip.

In early 2023, a police special investigation concluded that police and municipal officials failed to formulate effective crowd control steps, despite correctly anticipating a huge number of people in Itaewon. At the time, investigators said police had also ignored hotline calls by pedestrians who warned of swelling crowds before the surge turned deadly.

More than 20 police and other officials have been on trial over the disaster but few top-level officials have been charged or held accountable, prompting bereaved families and opposition lawmakers to call for an independent probe.

President Yoon had previously opposed a new investigation of the disaster.

However, during a meeting with liberal opposition leader Lee Jae-myung on Monday, Yoon said he would not oppose it, should some existing disputes be resolved, such as whether the fact-finding committee can request arrest warrants.

A shift in Yoon’s position came as he faces growing public calls to cooperate with Lee’s Democratic Party, which scored a massive win in the April 10 parliamentary election, extending its control of parliament for another four years.

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

“I can’t describe how fortunate it is as we can pass the special law now,” the Democratic Party’s chief policymaker Jin Sung-joon said ahead of the vote. “We’ve accepted the demands raised by President Yoon Suk Yeol and his ruling party in consideration of the desperate requests by the bereaved families, who said they can’t wait any longer.”

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