Post-Itaewon missteps

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Post-Itaewon missteps

In a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, President Yoon Suk-yeol emphasized the importance of “heavy responsibility.” “Inertial response or formal checkups cannot protect people’s lives and property,” he said. While underscoring the need for crowd control at massive gatherings, the president pointed out that what matters is not whether there is a specific organizer of large-scale events for the police to be mobilized. His remarks are aimed at reprimanding senior officials for making weird comments suggestive of attempts to avoid responsibility for the tragic deaths of more than 150 in the narrow alleyways in Itaewon last weekend before Halloween.

Top government officials continued making one controversial comment after another. A Seoul National University professor poignantly said the biggest problem of conservative governments is their apparent lack of concern about public safety.

A typical case is Interior Minister Lee Sang-min who said, “Even if cops and firefighters had been deployed to the spot in advance, it could not have solved the problem.” He kept on questioning the efficacy of dispatching additional police and firemen until two days after the disaster. After criticisms erupted from the governing People Power Party (PPP), he regretted about his carefree remarks and apologized.

Yoon Hee-keun, commissioner general of the National Police Agency, appeared before the public three days after the disaster. In a press conference on Tuesday, he apologized for the casual response by the police to the emergency. After public doubts arose over police officer preparedness, he pledged to find out who should be held accountable for the police’s laidback response. The police didn’t take any action even after receiving 11 emergency calls from citizens after 6 p.m. that day.

Park Hee-young, head of the Yongsan District office, is no exception. At first, she brushed off the tragedy as “a certain phenomenon of Halloween,” adding the district office did all it must do. But it was the office that had approved an illegal extension of the Hamilton Hotel, which helped trigger the deadly crowd crush on Saturday. In the face of mounting criticism later, Park apologized for the horrendous case which occurred in her own district. Police and Seoul Metro also are battling over whether the police requested the subway skip the station in Itaewon to help prevent overcrowding.

To draw lessons from the Itaewon disaster, the authorities must express deep condolences, find who must take responsibility for the tragedy and come up with effective measures to prevent such disasters. If senior officials are just busy avoiding their responsibility, it only deepens public pain.
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