The Constitutional Court of South Korea on Tuesday rejected the National Assembly’s request to impeach Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min, who some say failed to prevent and botched the response to a deadly crush in Seoul last year that killed 159 people.
In South Korea, the Constitutional Court ultimately decides whether to remove an incumbent official who the Assembly decides to impeach. The Court may only remove an official from office if the impeachment is “well grounded,” according to Article 53 of South Korea’s Constitutional Court Act.
The court reasoned that because dangerously large crowds were not anticipated before Halloween festivities in the neighborhood of Itaewon, where the crush happened, and because the festivities did not have a single organizer, “it is difficult to ask the respondent to take measures in advance … in order to prevent the disaster.” It also rejected allegations that the minister responded inadequately, noting that he complied with a request to check the accident site and that he coordinated a response to the crush.
While the court noted that Lee made inaccurate statements in the days after the event, it rejected assertions that he was attempting to mislead the public, pointing out the preliminary nature of the information.
In rejecting the request for Lee’s removal, the court placed the blame for the crush on a multitude of factors, including a lack of existing guidance on how emergency services should handle large events without organizers.
The National Assembly passed a motion of impeachment for Lee in February by a vote of 179 to 109, as Lee was criticized over his response to the crush, which killed 159 people and injured another 196. Critics contend that while 23 police officers and local officials were charged in relation to the crush, the government investigation into the tragedy did not adequately examine the actions of national politicians.