One week has passed since the Itaewon Halloween disaster. November 5 will be the final day of the week-long national mourning period for the disaster victims. Yet, it is still hard to recover from the shock, sorrow, and feelings of powerlessness the tragedy has brought about. Some 156 young people, including 26 foreigners from 14 different countries, lost their lives, and 151 people were injured. What’s also tragic is our inadequate systems to prevent and respond to disasters and what took place afterward in handling the aftermath.
It is particularly unsettling to learn through inspections and investigations how pervasive complacency and moral laxity have been in the management of the police organization. With such organizational problems, similar kinds of disasters could have happened at any time. On-site police officers working at Yongsan Police Station and Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency situation room already noticed some warning signals from the site way before 10:15 p.m. that day when the disaster happened. About four hours before the tragedy, there were calls after calls made to the 112 emergency police hotline. Realizing how risky the situation was, on-site police officers requested any backup, even a traffic police squad, two and a half hours before the tragic incident. There were four traffic police squads within a five-minute distance, but they arrived an hour later than the incident. The calamity that crushed people to death at the heart of Seoul could have been prevented if they had joined in time.
The delay is mainly attributable to the "control vacuum" of the police organization. Yongsan Police Station Chief Im-jae Lee was briefed on the situation around 21:30 but arrived at the site after 11 p.m. He even lied about this, writing a false report that he was there around 10:20 p.m. to start controlling the situation. Gwang-ho Kim, the head of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, showed up at the site after midnight after missing the belated briefing by Lee.
Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun for the Korean National Police Agency learned about the disaster after midnight. He reportedly went to his hometown in North Chungcheong Province on the day of the fatal incident, went to bed early, and could not answer any calls or text messages. Commissioner General Yoon had to travel back to Seoul and could convene the meeting of high-ranking officers at 2:30 a.m. the next day. It is unjustifiable that the head of national security could not be reached in emergencies. Even President Yoon was reported the disaster at 11:01 p.m. How absurd the reporting hierarchy of the police organization can be that its higher-ups get noticed of the situation 35 to 60 minutes belatedly than the president?
The police had seven years to prepare for any response manuals or guidelines for large gatherings without organizers, such as Halloween events, but they didn't. They even could have relied on the existing safety manual for events of large gatherings drafted in 2005 to prevent this avoidable calamity. Why the police ignored the guidelines and were late for initial responses should rigorously be investigated. The police should also develop an intense reform plan to regain the trust of people who are completely disillusioned with their organization.