South Korea to hold police accountable for crowd crush failures: PM

Seoul, South Korea AFP

South Korea’s prime minister said Wednesday that police must explain failures to respond to multiple emergency calls ahead of a deadly Halloween crowd surge, as investigators raided police stations.

At least 156 mostly young people were killed, and scores more injured, in a crush late Saturday at the first post-pandemic Halloween party in Seoul’s popular Itaewon nightlife district.

Transcripts of emergency calls obtained by AFP, many made hours before disaster struck, document rising desperation over crowd density.

Officials had earlier said the first call to the fire department about the crush was received at 10:15 pm Saturday, but the transcripts show someone called the police emergency hotline at 6:34 pm asking for help.

An estimated 100,000 people had flocked to the area, but because it was not an “official” event with a designated organiser, neither police nor other local authorities were actively managing the crowd.

South Korea’s Prime Minister Han Duck-soo speaks during a media briefing on the fatal Halloween crowd surge that killed over 150 people, at Korea’s Culture and Information Service Center in Seoul on November 1, 2022. – South Korea’s police chief said on November 1 that officers had received multiple urgent reports of danger ahead of a deadly crowd crush at a Halloween event but their handling of them was “insufficient”. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP)

“When each citizen makes an emergency call, it is when they are very urgent and in dire need of help or action from the police,” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told a government meeting.

“The government will sternly hold accountable those who were responsible as soon as the investigation is completed,” he said.

A wide-ranging probe is under way into the exact cause of the crush, and an investigative team on Wednesday raided multiple police offices, including in the district where the disaster happened.

“The special investigation team is conducting a raid on eight agencies including the Seoul Police Agency, Yongsan Police Station and the Yongsan Gu Office,” a spokesman for the national police agency told AFP.

The government also said Wednesday it would revamp the police’s 112 emergency call service.

“The government will do its best to create a safer society by using this accident as a lesson,” said Park Jong-hyun of the Ministry of the Interior and Safety.

– ‘Crushed to death’ –

The emergency call transcripts show how desperate members of the public repeatedly flagged dangerous overcrowding for several hours before the crush happened.

At 8:09 pm one caller told police: “There are too many people here being pushed, trampled, hurt. It’s chaotic. You need to control this.”

And at 10:11 pm, just moments before the crush, another person reported: “It looks like people are getting crushed to death there, total mayhem.”

A handful of top officials including the police chief, Seoul mayor and the interior minister issued public apologies on Tuesday, admitting they had failed to prevent the fatal disaster.

The ruling party on Wednesday proposed launching a special committee including opposition parties and independent experts to investigate the crush.

“There should be answers as to why police made a wrong judgment,” said Chung Jin-suk, interim leader of the People Power Party, according to Yonhap news agency.

The opposition Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung called on top government officials to take responsibility over the disaster.

“Minimising, covering up and manipulating to stave off responsibility will never be forgiven,” Lee told a party meeting.

“The attitude of top government officials is not that of those who are trying to take responsibility.”

South Korea is observing a week of national mourning until Saturday, with entertainment events cancelled and flags flying at half-mast.

© Agence France-Presse