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Yoon sends Itaewon probe legislation back to Assembly

Taking step for Yoon to veto, PM says bill could waste taxpayers' money, polarize public opinion

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : Jan. 30, 2024 - 15:05

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A man crouches while covering his head with both hands in front of the Government Complex Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap) A man crouches while covering his head with both hands in front of the Government Complex Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk Yeol shot down a bill that would have given the National Assembly the authority to initiate a new probe into the deadly crowd crush incident in Seoul during the Halloween weekend in October 2022, his office announced Tuesday.

The decision came hours after the Cabinet passed a motion on Tuesday morning demanding the parliament reconsider a special bill and giving Yoon grounds to veto it, at the Government Complex Seoul.

The conservative bloc has sought to reject the bill aimed at launching a renewed investigation into identifying those responsible for the incident that killed 159 people.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said in the Cabinet meeting that establishing a special 11-member investigative committee could lead to the "misuse of administrative resources and a waste of money," and could further "polarize public opinion," given that those who proposed the bill have so far failed to prove that the earlier police investigation into the matter was problematic.

Han added that the government will "swiftly" create a special committee to support the victims of the deadly incident and their families, as well as expand monetary and psychological support, without elaborating on a timeframe.

The bill was sent to the Cabinet on Jan. 19, after it passed parliament on Jan. 9 with 177 votes, out of 298 registered National Assembly members. Almost all ruling People Power Party lawmakers boycotted the vote. The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea holds a majority of the seats in the National Assembly.

The opposition bloc had sought to create an 11-member special investigation committee that would run for 15 months after the general election in April.

The bill also stipulates a plan for the compensation and support of victims and bereaved families. Such support would come in addition to the condolence money, funeral cost reimbursements and psychological support provided for the victims and their families shortly after the incident.

A bereaved family of the 2022 Itaewon crowd crush disaster lies on a street as protest erupted in front of the Government Complex Seoul where the South Korean Cabinet asked President Yoon Suk Yeol Tuesday to veto the special bill to launch an investigation committee to carry out a renewed probe. (Yonhap) A bereaved family of the 2022 Itaewon crowd crush disaster lies on a street as protest erupted in front of the Government Complex Seoul where the South Korean Cabinet asked President Yoon Suk Yeol Tuesday to veto the special bill to launch an investigation committee to carry out a renewed probe. (Yonhap)

The People Power Party on Jan. 18 asked Yoon to exercise his veto power against the bill. The party's floor leader, Yun Jae-ok, then accused the opposition bloc of "attempting to politicize" the disaster and "inflicting damage on Yoon by encouraging Yoon to veto the bill."

Yun also questioned the fairness of the new investigation committee as prescribed in the bill, given that it would have given the opposition bloc the power to name seven out of the 11 members.

Prime Minister Han on Tuesday echoed Yun's concerns, saying the investigative committee has to potential to be so powerful that it could breach the constitutional rights of those who might be targeted by the probe.

To overcome the president's veto, the bill will require two-thirds of the votes in favor in a revote session at the National Assembly, with at least half of all lawmakers present. Unlike in the pre-veto stage, the conservative bloc lawmakers would not need to boycott the vote and could instead vote against the bill if they wanted to eliminate it.

The special probe bill marks the ninth one that Yoon vetoed since his inauguration in May 2022.

Yoon last exercised his veto power in January. One of them would otherwise have allowed the opposition bloc to initiate a special counsel investigation into first lady Kim Keon Hee concerning her alleged involvement in a stock manipulation case in the early 2010s. The other could have launched the opposition-led special counsel into a bribery case concerning a high-profile land corruption scandal in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, besides the ongoing probe into the matter.

In South Korean history, the first president of the country Syngman Rhee struck down 43 bills during his term, followed by Yoon, with nine bills so far. Former presidents Park Chung-hee and Roh Tae-woo vetoed seven bills during their respective terms.

Bereaved family members who gathered at a memorial altar near Seoul City Hall said Tuesday afternoon that the Yoon administration's decision was an "insult" that "ignores their demands" to discover the truth behind the deadly incident, adding that the conservative bloc's argument that the investigation committee could become too powerful is "a false assertion."

This photo shows some 50 bereaved families and several Buddhist monks marching from Itaewon Station to the presidential office in Yongsan-gu, Seoul, on Monday. (Yonhap) This photo shows some 50 bereaved families and several Buddhist monks marching from Itaewon Station to the presidential office in Yongsan-gu, Seoul, on Monday. (Yonhap)

On Monday, some 50 bereaved families and several Buddhist monks marched around 2 kilometers in Seoul in a show of protest. Protesters bowed down to the ground every eight steps on their way from Itaewon Station to the presidential office.

Meanwhile, Song Doo-hwan, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, said in a statement Monday that a separate investigation body should be launched to identify the root cause of the disaster. This statement was in line with the United Nations' stance in November that a proper independent investigation into the incident "does not appear to have been carried out."

A special police investigation in January 2023 found that dozens of police officers, firefighters and public servants, mostly at the district level, were liable for the disaster, clearing Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min of criminal liability for the disaster, which stemmed from a failure to control the crowd flow.

A separate probe by the opposition-controlled National Assembly, by contrast, called for Lee's dismissal in its conclusion in January 2023. The impeachment motion to dismiss Lee was passed in parliament in February 2023, but the Constitutional Court rejected the motion in July.