The buck stops nowhere

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The buck stops nowhere

The ongoing investigation of the Itaewon tragedy by the special investigation headquarters under the National Police Agency (NPA) reveals unbelievable responses by the police and fire departments. The probe found that intelligence officers at the Yongsan Police Station had filed a report about safety concerns over the massive crowds before Halloween. The report cited the need for additional deployment of police to control the massive crowds. But the report was deleted from a computer. It turned out that a senior officer at the police station coaxed a lower officer to remove it from his computer.

We are dumbfounded that the critical report was not delivered to higher officers and beyond despite a pre-warning, not to mention a brazen attempt to destroy the evidence. If the police had responded properly, the tragic deaths of 156 could have been avoided. The investigation headquarters is probing a number of suspects, including the heads of the police station, the Yongsan District office and the Yongsan Fire Department, on charges of dereliction of duty, abuse of power and destruction of evidence.

A Q&A session in the Public Administration and Security Committee on Monday revealed the irresponsibility of related agencies and officials and the broken national disaster management system. Yoon Hee-keun, commissioner general of the NPA, said he had never been briefed about the dangerous situation in Itaewon.

Although the police received a number of emergency calls from citizens on the spot from around 6:30 pm on Oct. 29, the police leadership was not briefed about the imminent danger.

Nearly 10 days have passed since. But the head of the police was not even aware of who received the report at the last minute. The head of the district office did not attend a preliminary countermeasure meeting, citing its tradition that the meeting was attended by one of her deputies. She said she became aware of the tragedy through a text message from a local resident.

President Yoon Suk-yeol and Prime Minister Han Duck-soo came up with an apology on Monday. Yoon reprimanded the police for their lethargic response to the emergency situation. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle lamented that the disaster could have been avoided only if police had controlled the crowds at Exit No. 1 of Itaewon Station.

Lee Sang-min, the minister of the interior and safety, apologized for his inappropriate remarks, but said he did not discuss his resignation with the presidential office. The police and senior district officials simply reiterated “sorry” but didn’t accept their responsibility sincerely. The government must get to the bottom of the disaster if it really does not want such mishaps to be repeated over and over.
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