Anger in South Korea as court rejects removing minister over Halloween crush
SEOUL — South Korea’s top court on Tuesday ruled against a parliamentary vote to impeach the interior minister over what critics said was a botched response to a deadly Halloween crush in Seoul last year, provoking anger and dismay among victims’ relatives.
Some relatives at the hearing broke down in tears after the Constitutional Court ruling, with two mothers collapsing and taken away by an ambulance, according to a Reuters witness. There was a heavy police presence at the court.
Lawmakers in February voted to impeach minister Lee Sang-min, urging him to take responsibility for the failure of the response to a crowd surge that killed 159 people, most of them young people celebrating Halloween, in Seoul’s Itaewon nightlife district.
“This disastrous incident was not caused and exacerbated by a single cause or person,” Lee Jong-seok, a justice at the court said, adding that different government agencies were not able to respond in a coordinated way to big disasters.
While the court found the minister had made inappropriate remarks about how the disaster unfolded, it said in a statement the comments did not amount to grounds for impeachment and ruled he had not neglected his duties. The decision was unanimous, the court said.
Lee, who did not attend the hearing, said later in a statement issued by his ministry that it was time to unite and stop “wasteful political strife” over the disaster.
Dozens of relatives and their supporters gathered in front of the court chanting “condemn the constitutional court that gave immunity to Lee Sang-min”.
Choi Sun-mi, the mother of victim Park Ga-young, said the ruling as “truly devastating”.
“Our children, young people, are living in a place that isn’t safe to even walk in,” said Choi, whose hands were shaking as she choked back tears.
President Yoon Suk Yeol had rejected an opposition demand that he sack Lee.
The president’s office and the ruling party denounced their rival Democrats and accused the party of abusing its majority in parliament to push the impeachment.
Before the ruling, dozens of members of right-wing groups rallied outside the court, calling on it to dismiss the impeachment and branding it an opposition ploy.
In June, the opposition-led National Assembly decided to fast-track a bill aimed at an independent investigation of the crowd crush.
The Itaewon district is known as a place of fun and freedom but its narrow, steep streets and limited access points proved a lethal mixture for the partygoers who became trapped and crushed.