Itaewon probe points to police leadership
TOKYO — The special investigation division looking into the causes behind the recent Itaewon tragedy has narrowed its sights on top police figures, after President Yoon Suk-yeol slammed police leadership for their insufficient response on Monday.
The special investigation team of the National Police Agency searched 55 sites related to the Itaewon disaster, including the offices of Yoon Hee-keun, chief of the National Police Agency, Kim Kwang-ho, chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Agency, and Lee Im-jae, formerly chief of the Yongsan Police Station, who was dismissed after the disaster.
The investigators collected cellphones and digital records as the probe delves into allegations against top police officers.
Chiefs Yoon and Kim were notified of the tragedy more than an hour after it happened, and Lee arrived late to the scene. The team will also look into the police chain of command.
On Monday, the team said it has identified six figures as suspects, including former Yongsan police chief Lee, Ryu Mi-jin, who was in charge of the situation room of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency at the time of the incident, two officials from the intelligence team at Yongsan Police Station, Yongsan-gu District office chief Park Hee-young and Yongsan Fire Chief Choi Seong-beom.
The special investigation division’s response appears to fall in line with President Yoon slamming the police leadership for their negligent response to the tragedy at a national safety system inspection meeting held Monday.
There were also criticisms leveled that the investigation was targeting only low-ranking officials related to the tragedy, with officials in higher ranks reluctant to take the blame.
A series of raids last week ran across eight organizations, including the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency and Yongsan Police Station. However, the raids did not include the offices of high ranking police officials.
Interior Minister Lee Sang-min has been remaining firm in his stance that he will not be offering a resignation to take responsibility for the incident.
“There haven’t been any requests (calling for my resignation),” Lee said when questioned at a National Assembly meeting on Tuesday. “I am set to do my best dealing with a matter like this.”
Lee has been met with pressure to resign from the opposition parties as he is the top commander of national security and disaster response, in charge of police and fire departments.
“It is more important for me to do what I have to do in my place,” Lee said. “The urgent priority for me is to handle the accident and to come up with prevention measures so that a tragedy like (what happened in Itaewon) will not happen again.”
The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea has been calling for Lee’s resignation, saying the Interior Minister should take responsibility, not just the police.
Additionally, Yongsan Fire Chief Choi being included in the list of suspects for insufficient response to the incident has been met with controversy.
According to the division, it found that Choi did not appropriately respond to the urgency of the scene on the day of the tragedy. An ambulance under Yongsan Fire Department arrived on the scene later than an ambulance from Jongno Fire Station in the neighboring district.
Yongsan Fire Department explained the ambulance was late in arriving at the scene of the incident as it was tending to another patient in the area. The division plans to look further into the fire department’s rescue response.
A spokesperson from the division said that Choi faces a charge of alleged professional negligence.
Choi is widely known by the larger public for conducting press briefings after the tragedy happened. His shaking hands during the briefings were shared by the press and social media for showing how tragic the scene of the incident was even to the eyes of a veteran with many years of experience.
Meanwhile, police chief Yoon Hee-keun’s remark that he was notified of the ongoing probe against the police by the special investigation division caught fire, adding to the controversy that police are investigating their own charges.
Police have claimed that the special investigation division is an independent organization and does not receive orders from the police leadership.
“I do not command or receive reports (on the investigation conducted by the team). I am sure that the team will do well,” chief Yoon said after being questioned on the matter.
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