South Korea’s political landscape has long been mired in wasteful wrangling at the National Assembly, where ruling and opposition party members clash with each other for partisan purposes while ignoring pressing issues for the country.
The familiar pattern of partisan fighting is playing out again, threatening to derail and freeze the parliamentary process to handle key legislative tasks, including the budget for next year, as the opposition-controlled National Assembly passed a motion Sunday to press President Yoon Suk-yeol to fire Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min over the Halloween crowd crush in Itaewon.
While members of the ruling People Power Party boycotted the vote, 182 members of the opposition led by the Democratic Party of Korea voted in favor of a motion that calls for the dismissal of Lee for failing to properly handle the deadly crowd crush on Oct. 29 that killed at least 158 people.
The latest proposal for removing a Cabinet member marked the second attempt -- the first involving Foreign Minister Park Jin -- since Yoon took office in May and just the eighth in the history of South Korea's National Assembly.
The ruling party lawmakers slammed their opposition counterparts for orchestrating a thinly veiled political move to divert attention from the government’s corruption investigation into Lee Jae-myung, chair of the Democratic Party.
The presidential office reiterated its official position that it does not have any particular opinion over the motion, but given that the Yoon administration has favored completion of the probe first before holding those responsible accountable, the motion is expected to be rejected by the president.
If the motion is rejected, the Democratic Party has threatened it would push ahead with a parliamentary probe into the Itaewon tragedy and stronger measures to have Lee sacked.
The heated clash between the ruling and opposition parties over the dismissal of Lee is regrettable. This confrontation at the National Assembly is feared to paralyze parliamentary procedures at a time when lawmakers are required to compromise on a deal with crucial revision bills and the budget for next year, and keep the probe into the Itaewon tragedy moving forward.
There is little doubt that Lee should either voluntarily resign or be dismissed by Yoon in consideration of the scale of the crowd crush fatalities and its devastating impact on the victims’ families. After all, Lee is in charge of ensuring the overall safety of the Korean people, and it is difficult to say that he did his part faithfully in various respects in connection with the Itaewon crowd crush. When similar disasters took place in the past, minister-level officials in a similar position took responsibility and resigned for political and ethical reasons.
One day ahead of the approval of the motion, grieving families of 97 victims killed in the crowd crush called for the government to admit liability along with the dismissal of Lee, while disclosing a plan to form an organization.
Disappointingly, People Power Party Rep. Kweon Seong-dong, a key figure who is said to maintain close relations with Yoon, hurt the families with his improper comments. On his Facebook account, Kweon wrote that the family organization of the Itaewon disaster victims could be abused as a means for civic groups to embezzle funds, following the same path of the Sewol ferry -- a disaster that killed more than 300 passengers in 2014.
Kweon’s remark is shamefully inappropriate, and if it reflects Yoon’s stance, it goes against the general wishes of the Korean people, many of whom appear to side with the victims’ families.
For its part, the Democratic Party is not immune to criticism over its misguided and unilateral move. The wrangling over the dismissal of Lee is now expected to spark a severe clash that could paralyze parliamentary discussions for the budget of 2023. For the victims’ families of the Itaewon crowd crush as well as the country’s troubled economy, lawmakers from both sides must stop bickering and start working out a joint solution.