Apply strict standards for investigation

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Apply strict standards for investigation

After the death toll from the fatal crowd crush in Itaewon on Oct. 29 rose to 158, the special investigation headquarters under the National Police Agency (NPA) started investigating the disaster in full force. But suspicion lingers over the possibility of the investigation team holding mid-to-low officials accountable for the tragedy while granting legal and political immunity to top government officials. The ongoing probe must not allow any exceptions.

After the five-day national mourning period ended on November 6, President Yoon Suk-yeol said he has responsibility for preventing disasters followed by reiterations by the presidential office of the need to find the truth behind the unprecedented tragedy. As Yoon’s remarks suggest, the police must get to the bottom of the disaster, fix any potential loopholes in laws and systems, and hold senior officials liable for their lethargic responses to an emergency to prevent such tragedies.

But the way senior officials behave is disappointing. All of them — including Interior Minister Lee Sang-min, NPA chief Yoon Hee-keun and the Yongsan District office head — apologized for the disaster in one voice, but none of them came forward and took political and moral responsibility despite the gravity of the tragedy in Itaewon.

At the center of controversial remarks is the interior minister in charge of public safety. He has repeatedly provoked public anger with his inappropriate comments shortly after the tragedy. In the face of mounting pressure for his resignation, the minister said, “Who would not want to step down honorably to get away from the crisis?” The judge-turned-minister often resorts to legal logic, but is totally detached from reality.

A union representing the National Fire Agency (NFA) under the Confederation of Korean Government Employees’ Unions accused Minister Lee of dereliction of duty to the police. Firefighters strongly resisted after the special investigation team charged the former head of the Yongsan Fire Station with unpremeditated homicide last week. Two senior officers, from the Yongsan Police Station and the Seoul city government, took their own lives last week.

The special investigation unit is expected to expedite its probe of suspects inside the police. Since it already raided the office of the NPA chief to find evidence, investigators must keep political neutrality no matter what. The evidence gathered so far shows the Itaewon tragedy resulted from a colossal breakdown of preventive and response systems from top to bottom. The investigation team must apply the same standards to anyone who violated the rules in the fatal lead-up to the disaster.
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