SEOUL, South Korea — The opposition-controlled South Korean parliament on Wednesday voted to impeach Interior and Security Minister Lee Sang-min, holding him accountable for the government’s failure to plan for disasters and response likely contributing to the high death toll in a mass crushing that killed nearly 160 people in October.
The impeachment suspends Lee from his duties and the Constitutional Court has 180 days to decide whether to fire him for good or give him the job back.
Vice Minister Han Chang-seob will serve as acting minister until the Constitutional Court decides Lee’s fate.
Lee is seen as a key ally of conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol, whose office issued an exasperated response to his impeachment, accusing opposition lawmakers of abandoning legislative principles and creating “shameful history”.
Lee expressed regret after lawmakers voted 179 to 109 to impeach him, and said he would defend his case in the Constitutional Court.
“(I) hope that the vacuum in public safety (management) created by this unprecedented situation will be minimized,” Lee said in his statement.
Lee is the first cabinet minister to be impeached by the National Assembly, having previously ousted Conservative President Park Geun-hye in 2016. The Constitutional Court removed her from office and she was imprisoned for corruption before her Liberal successor pardoned her in December 2021.
Lee’s ouster points to the growing deadlock Yoon faces in a parliament controlled by his Liberal opponents, and could further intensify the country’s partisan political struggles that have fueled a national divide.
Lee’s ouster came weeks after police announced they would bring criminal charges, including involuntary manslaughter and negligence, against 23 officials, about half of them law enforcement officials, over a lack of security measures they say were responsible for the crowds in Itaewon, a major entertainment district in Seoul.
After a 74-day investigation into the incident, a special investigative team led by the National Police Agency concluded that police and government officials in Seoul’s Yongsan district failed to take meaningful measures to control the crowd, despite the fact that they anticipated massive gatherings of Halloween revelers. They also ignored calls from pedestrians to police hotlines warning of a swelling crowd hours before the wave turned deadly on Oct. 28.
Officials also backfired with their response when people fell over and were crushed in a narrow alley close to the Hamilton Hotel, close to the Hamilton Hotel, around 10 p.m.
However, opposition politicians claimed that police investigators were soft on senior members of Yoon’s government, including Lee and National Police Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun, who were called upon to resign.
The police investigators said they closed their investigations into the Lee Department and the National Police Agency before turning the case over to prosecutors because it was difficult to establish the direct responsibility of those agencies.
Oh Yeong-hwan, lawmaker and spokesman for the main opposition Democratic Party, said lawmakers were “carrying out the orders of the people” by impeaching Lee, who he said should be held responsible for the deadly mob in Itaewon. He criticized Yoon for sticking with Lee despite mounting calls for his removal.
“The National Assembly had to hold (Lee) accountable because President Yoon Suk Yeol refused to accept that responsibility,” Oh said.
Legislator Jang Dong-hyuk of Yoon’s People’s Power Party accused the opposition of “tramping on (South Korea’s) constitutional order”, insisting that Lee be impeached without just cause.
He insisted the Liberals were motivated by political vendetta against Yoon, while prosecutors under his administration continued an investigation into corruption allegations surrounding Democratic Party chairman Lee Jae-myung.