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South Korean police seek manslaughter charges over deadly Halloween crush

Investigators blamed a lack of safety measures for the disaster in Seoul’s nightlife district of Itaewon, which killed nearly 160 people.
Police officers in Seoul, South Korea, stand guard at the scene of a deadly crowd surge on Oct. 30, 2022.
Police officers in Seoul, South Korea, stand guard at the scene of a deadly crowd surge on Oct. 30, 2022.Ahn Young-joon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — Police in South Korea are seeking charges of involuntary manslaughter and negligence against 23 officials, including law enforcement officers, for a lack of safety measures they said were responsible for a crowd surge last year that killed nearly 160 people.

Despite anticipating a Halloween weekend crowd of more than 100,000, Seoul police had assigned 137 officers to the capital’s nightlife district Itaewon on the day of the crush. Those officers were focused on monitoring narcotics use and violent crimes, which experts say left few resources for pedestrian safety.

Son Je-han, who headed the National Police Agency’s special investigation into the incident, said Friday his team will now send the case to prosecutors. Those recommended for indictment include Park Hee-young, who is mayor of Seoul’s Yongsan district, and the district’s former police chief Lee Im-jae — two of the six who have been arrested.

The results of the 74-day police investigation announced by Son mostly confirmed what was already clear — that police and public officials in Yongsan failed to employ meaningful crowd control measures for the expected numbers of Halloween revelers and essentially ignored pedestrian calls placed to police hotlines that warned of a swelling crowd hours before the surge turned deadly on Oct. 29.

Officials also botched their response once people began getting toppled over and crushed in a narrow alley clogged with partygoers near Hamilton Hotel around 10 p.m., failing to establish effective control of the scene and allow rescue workers to reach the injured in time, Son said.

“Inaccurate judgment of the situation, the slow distribution of information about the situation, poor cooperation between related institutions and delays in rescue operations were among the overlapping failures that caused the high number of casualties,” Son said at a news conference in Seoul.

It is unclear whether the results of the police investigation will be enough to calm the public’s anger and demands for government accountability as the country still struggles to cope with its worst disaster in nearly a decade.

Opposition lawmakers and some relatives of the victims have demanded investigations into more high-profile figures, such as Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min and National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun, who have faced calls to resign.

However, Son said the special investigation team will close its investigations of the Interior and Safety Ministry, the National Police Agency, and the Seoul Metropolitan Government, saying it was difficult to establish their direct responsibility.

Some experts have called the crush in Itaewon a “manmade disaster” that could have been prevented with fairly simple steps, such as employing more police officers and public workers to monitor bottleneck points, enforcing one-way walk lanes and blocking narrow pathways or temporarily closing Itaewon’s subway station to prevent large numbers of people moving in the same direction.