Itaewon disaster started with police putting presidential office’s security ahead of public’s

Posted on : 2022-11-08 16:29 KST Modified on : 2022-11-08 16:29 KST
Police personnel enforcing public safety were cut back to provide security for presidential office and control demonstrations
President Yoon Suk-yeol holds a national safety system review meeting at the presidential office in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Monday morning. (Presidential office press pool)
President Yoon Suk-yeol holds a national safety system review meeting at the presidential office in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Monday morning. (Presidential office press pool)

The last message radioed by Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA) chief Kim Kwang-ho at 8:32 pm on Oct. 29 before he left for the day was one of encouragement for police officers who were watching demonstrations.

At 9:24 pm that day, Yongsan Police Station captain Lee Im-jae was eating at an ox bone soup restaurant after finishing up his demonstration management duties.

Even as calls were pouring into emergency services warning of the risk of an imminent crowd crush disaster, the focus of the police leadership was squarely on policing demonstrations.

On Saturday, the police made public information about Kim and Lee’s activities on the day of the deadly crowd crush in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood. The details showed that four minutes after radioing his final message of encouragement on the demonstration policing for the day, Kim left the SMPA and headed home.

It was not until 11:36 pm — an hour and 21 minutes after the crush turned deadly — that he was apprised of the situation in Itaewon through a report at his home from the Yongsan Police Station captain. He began issuing orders at 11:44 pm.

Closer to the scene of the tragedy, Lee was even slower to take action. After finishing his demonstration management duties, he arrived at a restaurant at 9:24 pm. Leaving the restaurant at 9:47 pm, he took an official vehicle to Itaewon.

He attempted to enter the Itaewon area by vehicle from the area around Noksapyeong Subway Station, only around 800 meters from the site of the crush. But he did not exit the vehicle until between 10:55 and 11:01 pm. The tragedy occurred in the hour or so while Lee was still in his vehicle, as crush victims began collapsing around 10:15 pm.

No information has been confirmed to date on what orders or reports Lee issued from his vehicle.

67 units stationed at demonstrations, plus two squads at Pres. Yoon’s home

Kim and Lee’s activities were not the only evidence that the police’s attention that day was consistently focused squarely on the demonstrations and security for President Yoon Suk-yeol.

A total of 67 police squads were in position at demonstrations in central Seoul, including a national candlelight march calling for Yoon’s resignation and a special prosecutor to investigate his wife Kim Keon-hee. Two squads were also working in shifts around Seoul’s Seocho neighborhood, where Yoon’s private residence is located — despite no reports of demonstrations there.

In contrast, scarcely any police could be seen working to prevent dangerous congestion around the scene of the Itaewon tragedy, where the public’s safety was urgently in need of protection.

At 6:34 pm, the first of 11 calls from the public asking for help was made to the emergency services number 112. But the police only sent officers to the scene in response to four of them.

At around 7:34 pm, police in the area requested backup, but it was not until 9:30 pm that a 20-member transportation squad joined them after finishing their demonstration management duties. By that time, the crowds in Itaewon were already out of control.

Experts in social disaster situations have taken note of the bias evident in the police leadership’s activities and distribution of police presence.

“Understanding what effects policy signals and the administration’s change in approach has had on the police’s attitude and distribution of resources and how that relates to the tragedy is not just a matter of judicial punishment — it’s crucial to examining social disasters that raise questions about what is ‘truly important,’” said Park Sang-eun, previously an investigator on the special commission probing the Sewol ferry sinking in April 2014.

More police for demonstrations, fewer for general public safety

It has been evident since before the Itaewon disaster that the administration and police have prioritized managing demonstrations and protecting the presidential office’s security over safeguarding the general public.

With the relocation of the presidential office to the Yongsan area, the Yongsan Police Station found itself shouldering many of the demonstration management duties that had before fallen mainly on the Jongno Police Station, which was responsible for the Blue House and Gwanghwamun Square areas — both frequent sites for demonstrations.

As a result, the proportion of the Yongsan Police Station’s security presence assigned to respond to demonstrations was eight times higher in October than it was in February, before the presidential office’s relocation. An additional 20 officers were tasked with transportation security, which includes controlling traffic when the president reported to or left work.

In contrast, the number of officers assigned to anti-crime patrol teams — focusing mainly on everyday safety and livelihood duties — was reduced by nine. This can be interpreted as a case of cutting the number of police assigned to protect the public’s general safety in order to ensure the presidential office’s security and control demonstrations.

“It’s true that duties have become overloaded [compared with before the presidential office’s relocation],” said one officer at the Yongsan Police Station.

Further contributing to this trend were attitudes among the police themselves, who tend to place more importance on duties related to the presidential office and assemblies or demonstrations.

“From the education stage, we’re taught concepts of security for congestion scenarios and trained for combat, but the reality is that as we go about our actual duties, we end up focusing our attention on demonstration security and security for political situations, which is where the decision-makers’ interests lie,” said a police officer who has been chiefly tasked with security duties in the past.

“In the case of the Yongsan Police Station, those kinds of duties exploded with the relocation of the presidential office and so forth, and it looks like they didn’t have enough capabilities to spare,” they added.

Even those police officers who were stationed in Itaewon on the day of the tragedy were mainly tasked with public morals-related policing duties, including drugs and indecent exposure.

The police originally said that 136 officers were stationed in Itaewon on Oct. 29. But information obtained from the National Police Agency (NPA) by the Democratic Party’s Itaewon disaster response headquarters showed that the numbers included around 50 plainclothes police cracking down on drug activities, nine tasked with policing toy firearms and indecent exposure, and 26 performing traffic duties.

If those officers are disregarded, that means the risk of a crush in Itaewon was being managed by only around 50 police officers, including 32 from the Itaewon precinct station.

An examination of the Yongsan Police Station’s Halloween response reports from 2017 to 2022 showed that while the focus through 2019 was on managing crowds and traffic incidents, this year’s was on cracking down rigorously on “illegal and disorderly behavior.” That too bears some connection with the administration’s ongoing focuses.

After taking over as NPA commissioner general in August, Yoon Hee-keun declared a “war on drugs” as his top “strategic task with a palpable impact on the public.”

The Yoon Suk-yeol administration put “achieving a society that is safe from crime” at the top of the security section of its list of 110 governance goals. Nowhere among those tasks was there any reference to social disasters or large-scale tragedies.

By Bang Jun-ho & Oh Yeon-seo, staff reporters

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