Families of Seoul Crowd Crush Victims Savor a Small Win

Bereaved relatives of the victims of a deadly 2022 crowd crush in South Korea expressed mixed emotions this week after three former police officers were convicted of destroying evidence connected to the episode, in which nearly 160 people died in Seoul. Dissatisfaction over the slow pace of the inquiry and the perceived leniency of the sentences was mingled with relief that someone, at last, had been held to account.

On Wednesday, a court found the three former officers guilty for their roles in deleting an internal report that warned of the potential for hazardous situations during that October weekend’s Halloween festivities. Though others have been indicted, these officers are the first people to be convicted of any crime related to the episode.

The verdicts were an unexpected win for the victims’ family members, who had waited more than 15 months and were starting to lose faith that anyone would ever be held responsible.

“It was a long wait, but it’s a meaningful outcome in that the court has clearly outlined where the police went wrong,” said Lee Jeong-min, the head of an association for the bereaved families. “It sets a precedent and may influence the upcoming proceedings.”

Numerous officials are still likely to face a day in court. Last month, Kim Kwang-ho, the head of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, was indicted on a charge of contributing to the crush through negligence. He is the most senior official so far to face criminal charges related to the disaster.

While families are relieved and hopeful that this is only the start of justice being served, they also say the punishments should have been harsher, according to Yun Bok-nam, a lawyer representing them.

Park Seong-min, who was a senior official at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, was sentenced to 18 months in prison, the only one of the three to get prison time. The other two men, former officers at Yongsan Police Station who destroyed the documents on Mr. Park’s instructions, were given suspended sentences of one year in one case, and four months in the other.

“The scale of sin is too big,” said Lim Ick-chul, 68, whose son Lim Jong-won died in the crowd crush. “Every little detail, no matter how small, should have been met with intense scrutiny.”

On Oct. 29, 2022, thousands of people flocked to Itaewon, a district in Seoul known for its nightlife. Around 10:30 p.m., hundreds were caught in a narrow alleyway, unable to escape and falling on top of one another, dying of suffocation.

Afterward, the government faced an outcry from the public demanding answers — and apologies from whoever would turn out to be responsible.

Though the administration of President Yoon Suk Yeol launched an initial investigation, which found that dozens of panicked witnesses in Itaewon had called the police asking for help controlling the crowds, last month Mr. Yoon vetoed a call by lawmakers for a special independent inquiry to look deeper into the matter.

Families of victims have previously expressed frustration that high-ranking officials like the home minister and the national head of police were cleared of wrongdoing.

They, along with civil groups, are urging reconsideration of the special investigation. Lawmakers in the National Assembly can override the presidential veto with a two-thirds vote. According to Mr. Yun, the lawyer for the victims’ families, the chances of that happening are not good. “This is a large proportion, however, and overrides, while possible, aren’t common.”

Mr. Lim, the father of one of the victims, says that after over a year of waiting, a painful process that took “too long,” he sees hope after Wednesday’s court ruling. “There’s nothing we can do to bring my son back,” he said. “But at least he and the other young people who died can finally rest in peace with dignity knowing that their deaths were at no fault of their own.”