The impeachment bill of Minister Lee Sang-min of Interior and Safety, proposed by three opposition parties, including the Democratic Party, the Justice Party, and the Basic Income Party, was passed yesterday. Among the 293 votes, 179 were in favor, 109 were against, and five were invalid. The reason for the impeachment is Lee’s failure to deal properly with the Itaewon Halloween disaster. It is the first time in Korea’s 75-year constitutional history to have the impeachment bill of a minister, a Cabinet Member, passed. Minister Lee’s duties were suspended immediately after the bill was passed. The Vice Minister will be acting minister for the Ministry until a decision is reached by the Constitutional Court.
The unprecedented case of a minister impeachment is regrettable, indeed. The ruling and opposition parties conducted a probe to get to the root of the matter and to prevent a repeat of such mishap, but they have only engaged in tedious political battles. The ruling and opposition parties have been at odds from the start on resolving of the tragedy. Ongoing disagreement eventually resulted in minister's impeachment, tainting constitutional history.
The Minister of Interior and Safety assumes political responsibility to appease public sentiment regardless of legal accountability. Lee’s inappropriate remarks, including “Lack of police and firefighting manpower may have been the cause” and” resigning in style,” had sparked controversy. President Yoon Suk Yeol dismissed the opposition party’s suggestion to dismiss Lee, praising his efforts. The impeachment resulted from the ruling party’s drive to defend Lee against the opposition parties’ determination to remove him.
However, the impeachment of a Cabinet Member is a process where legal, not political, accountability is determined. Impeachment can be conducted only when the minister has violated the Constitution or laws performing his/her duties. Therefore, many point out that the opposition party’s argument that Lee violated Article 34, Clause 6 (State duty to prevent disasters) stated in the impeachment bill might not be construed as a violation of the Constitution or the law. It is questionable whether Lee’s careless remarks should be viewed as a serious legal violation that warrants impeachment.
The Prosecution Committee, which carries out the role of prosecutor to prove Minister Lee's unconstitutional and illegal actions, should be assumed by the Legislation and Judiciary Committee of the National Assembly. However, the committee leader is currently fulfilled by Rep. Kim Do-eup of the People Power Party, which has opposed the impeachment. It will be difficult for Kim to properly perform the role of the prosecution committee expected by the opposition parties.
More than 100 days have passed since the Itaewon Halloween disaster, but much remains to be resolved. Bereaved families and the Seoul Metropolitan Government are still at odds over the location of the memorial space in remembrance of victims. In this situation, it is unreasonable and frustrating for the ruling and opposition parties to argue over the impeachment. The impeachment decision by the Constitutional Court should be expedited to minimize confusion due to the minister’s absence.