Kim Kwang-ho, head of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA), has been charged with professional negligence that led to the deaths and injuries to people during the 29 October 2022 celebrations, western district prosecutors’ office in Seoul said on Friday.
More than 100,000 people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, had gathered to enjoy Halloween holiday celebrations post-pandemic in the capital’s Itaewon nightlife district. It took a deadly turn when partygoers pushed their way through the narrow alleyway in the Itaewon area, while music from the nearby nightclubs continued to blare in the background.
The prosecutors alleged that Mr Kim, who was not in town that night and off duty, “did not take necessary measures, such as deploying sufficient police forces and ensuring proper command and supervision”.
It was despite Mr Kim being “fully aware of the danger to the public and for some unexplained reason neglected the scene of the Itaewon tragedy”.
Mr Kim is the highest-ranking police official to face charges over the fatal crush and was charged without detention.
Around 137 officers had been deployed for the celebrations that night in Itaewon. But the force was outnumbered by the people pouring into the narrow lanes of the district.
The initial sign of a possible mishap in 2022 emerged shortly after 6.30 local time, hours before the tragic crush occurred in an alley off the main road.
Witnesses said the crowd surge caused “a hell-like” chaos as people fell on each other “like dominos”.
In January last year, Mr Kim and 22 other officers from Seoul police and rescue and district officers were referred for charge by a special police investigation team over the alleged mishandling.
Prosecutors also charged the heads of the police stations in Yongsan district that includes Itaewon, and the Yongsan Ward office.
A January 2023 report by the investigative team said the local municipal and officials from emergency service did not plan ahead and had a poor emergency response. It said no preventive measures were taken prior to the celebrations and the response to emergency calls for help was inappropriate.
The office has said that Mr Kim is “responsible for breaching his specific duty of care by failing to properly exercise his authority to deploy police” and called him to be “severely punished”.
The families of victims welcomed the charges and demanded that the police chief resign.
“Chief Kim must immediately step down from his position and face trial,” the families said in a statement. “President Yoon Suk-yeol must dismiss Kim immediately.”