Prosecutors in South Korea have indicted the head of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, charging him with contributing through negligence to the Halloween crowd crush in Seoul in 2022 that killed nearly 160 people, officials said.
The police chief charged on Friday, Kim Kwang-ho, is one of the most senior government officials to face criminal charges stemming from the episode, one of the worst peacetime disasters in South Korea’s history. The head of Yongsan District, the area of Seoul where the deadly event happened, was already facing similar charges.
On Oct. 29, 2022, thousands of young people packed into Itaewon, a popular nightlife neighborhood in central Seoul, to enjoy the first restriction-free Halloween weekend since the pandemic. Hundreds squeezed into a narrow and sloping alleyway from both ends, creating a suffocating squeeze in the middle.
Few police officers were on hand to control the crowd, even though the authorities had been warned in advance of the likelihood of an unusually large gathering and the potential for problems. As the crowd crush was happening, caller after panicked caller from the scene rang police and fire-department hotlines to describe crowds, chaos and danger. But help was slow to arrive.
A government investigation last year, led by the National Police Agency, left survivors and relatives of victims unsatisfied and angry. The central government said that it did not have responsibility for public safety in Itaewon that night because the Halloween festivities had not been formally organized, a response that drew scorn and ridicule from many South Koreans. Only a handful of mostly middle-ranking police and other officials were indicted on criminal negligence and similar charges last year, while top government officials, like the home minister, were cleared of wrongdoing.
Early last year, when the police agency concluded its investigation, it asked prosecutors to indict Mr. Kim on charges connected to failure to take precautionary measures, such as assigning crowd control officers, and to bungling the emergency response. But the prosecutors did not act until Friday. Two other police officers were also indicted on Friday, bringing the total number of people to face trial in connection with the Itaewon disaster to 21.
If Mr. Kim is convicted, he could face up to five years in prison or a fine of up to $15,000. Government officials indicted on criminal charges are also suspended from their jobs pending the outcome of their trial.
Victims’ families welcomed what they called Mr. Kim’s “belated” indictment. They have long accused the government of President Yoon Suk Yeol of refusing to come clean on its shortcomings and fire top safety officials over the Itaewon disaster.
“President Yoon must dismiss the Seoul police chief immediately,” they said in a statement. “The indictment of the additional people must be a first step toward a proper punishment of those responsible for the Itaewon disaster.”
This month, legislators in the National Assembly, which is dominated by parties in opposition to President Yoon’s, passed a bill that would appoint a special prosecutor to begin an independent investigation into the disaster, saying that the one by the National Police Agency failed to unveil the whole truth about official negligence.
Mr. Yoon’s party has asked him to veto the bill, calling it politically motivated. He has not said if he will.