Review panel advises that Seoul police chief be indicted over Itaewon disaster

Posted on : 2024-01-16 17:15 KST Modified on : 2024-01-16 17:29 KST
The review board did not recommend an indictment for Choi Seong-beom, the director of the Yongsan Fire Station
Family members of those killed in the Oct. 29 crowd crush in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood in 2022 gather outside the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office on Jan. 15, where the investigative review board meets to determine whether to prosecute Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency chief Kim Kwang-ho and Yongsan Fire Station chief Choi Seong-beom for gross negligence. (Kim Jung-hyo/The Hankyoreh)
Family members of those killed in the Oct. 29 crowd crush in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood in 2022 gather outside the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office on Jan. 15, where the investigative review board meets to determine whether to prosecute Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency chief Kim Kwang-ho and Yongsan Fire Station chief Choi Seong-beom for gross negligence. (Kim Jung-hyo/The Hankyoreh)

An investigation review board operating under South Korea’s Supreme Prosecutors’ Office has concluded its deliberations about whether to indict Kim Kwang-ho, head of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, and Choi Seong-beom, director of the Yongsan Fire Station, in connection with the deadly crowd crush that occurred in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood on Oct. 29, 2022. The board’s recommendation for investigators on Monday was to indict Kim, but not Choi.

The debate about whether to indict the two suspects lasted from 2 pm on Monday, when the board’s pending affairs committee convened, until 10 pm that evening.  Committee members recommended indicting Kim by a vote of 9 to 6 and not indicting Choi by a vote of 14 to 1.

The board’s meeting was attended by the investigative team from the Seoul Western District Prosecutors’ Office and legal counsel for the bereaved families of the Itaewon crowd crush, with both sides voicing their opinions about indicting the two figures.

In a written opinion, the bereaved families remarked that Kim had received on Oct. 14 three reports about atmosphere and liabilities that described the need to prepare for safety issues during Halloween weekend, two weeks before the holiday, and that he had noted that large crowds were expected to gather in three preliminary virtual meetings, including a national leadership meeting convened by the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency on Oct. 4. Despite having foreseen the potential for a tragedy in Itaewon, the bereaved families claimed, Kim had failed to take the necessary measures to stop it.

While remitting Kim’s case to the prosecution service, the National Police Agency’s special investigations department said that Kim, who was responsible for security at crowded events and overseeing the public servants under his command, had failed to take the necessary steps to prevent a disaster, such as instituting safety measures or deploying the riot police for crowd control, despite being aware in advance that the area would be crowded on the day of the tragedy.

As for Choi, who was responsible for fire safety measures, the bereaved families argued that he’d failed to institute specific and immediate preventive measures even though the Yongsan Fire Station had predicted the area would be crowded on Halloween weekend and had even set up a fire safety measures period to begin on Oct. 28, 2022, one day before the crush that killed over 150 people. 

Kim and Choi were among 23 individuals remitted to the public prosecutors by the police special investigations department on Jan. 13, 2023, on charges of causing injury and death through occupational negligence.

The prosecutors carried on the investigation for more than a year without reaching a conclusion. Finally, Prosecutor General Lee One-seok intervened on Jan. 4 to convene the investigative review board to discuss whether Kim and Choi should be indicted.

The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office explained that the review board had been convened for “a variety of reasons, including the gravity of the Itaewon crowd crush, public interest, the current progress of the investigation and trial, the variety of legal opinions about occupational negligence, and domestic and international cases and recent precedent on that subject.”

The prosecutors’ investigation review board was instituted in 2017 as an external body to review the appropriateness of investigations and indictments with the goal of enhancing the neutrality and transparency of prosecutorial investigations. The board’s decision serves as a recommendation, which means the prosecutors are not bound to follow it.

After receiving the board’s opinion, the Seoul Western District Prosecutors’ Office said, “We intend to reach our final opinion after carefully analyzing the evidence, facts and jurisprudence, along with the results of the board’s review.”

By Oh Yeon-seo, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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