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South Korean Court convicts police officers over Halloween 2022 crowd crush cover-up

South Korean Court convicts police officers over Halloween 2022 crowd crush cover-up
February 15, 2024

A South Korean court has convicted three former police officers of destroying internal files and other evidence in an attempted cover-up after a Halloween crowd crush that killed nearly 160 people in the capital, Seoul, in November 2022.

While 23 officials are facing involuntary manslaughter and negligence charges over the incident, these are the first convictions over the deaths – which have been blamed on official failures in disaster planning and a botched emergency response.

The Seoul Western District Court sentenced Park Seong-min, a former senior intelligence officer at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, to 18 months in prison on charges that he ordered subordinates to erase internal documents after the crush. Those included reports showing how police ignored warnings about possible crowd-related accidents in the nightlife district of Itaewon.

Kim Jin-ho, a former intelligence officer at Seoul’s Yongsan district police station, received a suspended one-year sentence on similar charges. Kwang Yeong-seok, a lower-ranking officer at the Yongsan station, received a four-month deferred sentence after being found guilty of destroying files under Kim’s instruction.

‘Absolutely avoidable’
A civic group representing victims’ families issued a statement welcoming the ruling, which they said recognised “criminal liability of public officials for failing to anticipate and prepare for the huge crowd leading up to the tragedy, and for covering up and downplaying information about the tragedy after it happened”.

The group also criticised South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol for vetoing a bill last month that would have appointed a special investigator to lead an independent probe into the accident. Following a 74-day investigation into the tragedy, a special investigation team led by the National Police Agency concluded that police and municipal officials in Yongsan district failed to plan effective crowd control measures.

Despite anticipating a crowd of more than 100,000, Seoul police assigned only 137 officers to Itaewon on the day of the crush.

Police also ignored hotline calls placed by pedestrians who warned of swelling crowds before the surge turned deadly. Officials also botched their response before people began getting crushed in an alley near the Itaewon subway station and failed to establish control over the site and allow paramedics to reach the injured in time.

Safety experts have called the crush a “man-made disaster” that could have been prevented with fairly simple steps such as employing more police and public workers to monitor bottleneck points, enforcing one-way walk lanes and blocking narrow pathways.

Images: The alley near Seoul's Itaewon subway station where many of the deaths occured, closed off after the fatalities (top, credit: Shutterstock) and flowers and memorial messages for the Halloween crowd crush victims (below). 

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