Police chief admits ‘heavy responsibility’ in Seoul crush

South Korea's police chief admits responsibility for failing to prevent a deadly Halloween crush.

South Korea's police chief admits responsibility for failing to prevent a deadly Halloween crush. Photo: AP

South Korea’s police chief has admitted “a heavy responsibility” for failing to prevent a recent crowd surge that killed more than 150 people during Halloween festivities in Seoul.

He said on Tuesday that officers didn’t effectively handle earlier emergency calls about the impending disaster.

The admission came as the South Korean government faces growing public scrutiny over whether the crowd surge on Saturday night in Seoul’s Itaewon district, a popular nightlife neighbourhood, could have been prevented and who should take the responsibility for the country’s worst disaster in years.

“I feel a heavy responsibility (for the disaster) as the head of one of the related government offices,” Yoon Hee Keun, commissioner general of the Korean National Police Agency, told a televised news conference on Tuesday.

“Police will do their best to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again.”

Commissioner Yoon said an initial investigation found there were many urgent calls by citizens notifying authorities about the potential danger of a crowd gathering in Itaewon, but officers who had received those calls didn’t respond to them in a satisfactory manner.

Commissioner Yoon said police have subsequently launched an intense internal probe to look deeper into the officers’ handling of the emergency calls and other issues like their on-the-spot response to the crowd surge in Itaewon at that night.

The disaster, which left at least 156 people dead and 151 others injured, was concentrated in a downhill, narrow alley in Itaewon.

Witnesses described people falling on one another, suffering severe breathing difficulties and falling unconscious.

They also recalled rescuers and ambulances failed to reach the crammed alleys in time because the entire Itaewon area was extremely packed with slow-moving vehicles and a crowd of partygoers clad in Halloween costumes.

After the disaster, police launched a 475-member task force to find its cause.

Senior police officer Nam Gu-Jun told reporters on Monday that officers had obtained videos taken by about 50 security cameras in the area and were analysing video clips posted on social media.

Officer Nam said police had also interviewed more than 40 witnesses and survivors so far.

Police said they had sent 137 officers to maintain order during Halloween festivities on Saturday, much more than the 34 to 90 officers mobilised in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before the pandemic.

But some observers questioned whether the 137 officers were enough to handle the estimated 100,00 people gathered on Saturday in Itaewon.

Adding more questions about the role of police was the fact that they sent 7000 officers to another part of Seoul earlier on Saturday to monitor duelling protests involving tens of thousands of people.

Police also acknowledged that the 137 officers dispatched to Itaewon were primarily assigned to monitor crime, with a particular focus on narcotics use – not the crowd control.

The death toll could rise as officials said that 29 of the injured were in serious condition.

The dead included some 26 foreign nationals from Australia, Iran, China, Russia, the United States, Japan and elsewhere.

The Itaewon area, known for its expat-friendly, cosmopolitan atmosphere, is the country’s hottest spot for Halloween-themed events and parties, with young South Koreans taking part in costume competitions at bars, clubs and restaurants.

Saturday’s gathering of the estimated 100,000 people in Itaewon was the biggest Halloween celebration in the area since the pandemic began.

Halloween festivities in Itaewon have no official organisers.

South Korean police said they don’t have any specific procedures for handling incidents such as crowd surges during an event that has no organisers.


Topics: South Korea
Stay informed, daily
A FREE subscription to The New Daily arrives every morning and evening.
The New Daily is a trusted source of national news and information and is provided free for all Australians. Read our editorial charter.
Copyright © 2024 The New Daily.
All rights reserved.