By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL – South Korean lawmakers voted on Wednesday to impeach the interior minister over his responses to a deadly Halloween crush, setting the stage for him to become the first cabinet member ousted by the legislature.
As many as 159 people were killed and 196 injured in the Oct. 29 incident, when revellers flooded narrow alleyways in the popular nightlife district of Itaewon to enjoy the first coronavirus mask-free Halloween festivities in three years.
Wednesday’s motion passed by a widely expected margin of 179 to 109 in a secret ballot in the 300-member single chamber, where the main opposition Democratic Party has a 169-seat majority.
The motion needed support from at least 150 members to pass.
The parliament’s justice committee will review the motion before sending it to the Constitutional Court, which would decide whether to uphold the impeachment, a process that could take up to six months.
The Democrats and other opposition parties had pushed for expulsion of the interior minister, Lee Sang-min, urging him to take responsibility for botched responses to the crush.
“I will fully cooperate with the constitutional court’s impeachment trial so that the Ministry of Interior and Safety can be normalised at an early date,” the minister said in a statement.
Lee and the police have faced criticism over their handling of the tragedy, especially after publicly released transcripts of emergency calls showed that many citizens warned of impending danger and called for help hours before the stampede.
The minister has apologised for the flawed responses but when asked on Monday if he was willing to resign, responded that his priority was to devise and implement steps to prevent recurrence of such a tragedy.
President Yoon Suk-yeol had rejected the opposition’s demand that he sack Lee, and his office and ruling party denounced the Democrats for abusing their majority power to press ahead with the impeachment.
“It is the renunciation of parliamentary democracy,” Yoon’s office said in a statement after the motion passed. “It will be recorded as a shameful history in parliamentary politics.”
A presidential official said there was no evidence that the minister had severely violated the constitution or any law.
Tension flared this week between the Seoul government and families of the crush victims after they set up an unauthorised memorial in front of city hall. On Tuesday, city officials said the memorial violated rules and ordered its removal in a week.
In 2017, President Park Geun-hye became South Korea’s first elected leader to be expelled from office when the Constitutional Court upheld her impeachment. The court dismissed an impeachment motion in 2004 for President Roh Moo-hyun.