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Two officials dead in apparent suicides as Itaewon investigation continues

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Officials pay tribute to the victims of the Itaewon crowd crush before demolishing the memorial altar set up near Noksapyeong Station in Yongsan District, central Seoul, on Sunday. [YONHAP]
Officials pay tribute to the victims of the Itaewon crowd crush before demolishing the memorial altar set up near Noksapyeong Station in Yongsan District, central Seoul, on Sunday. [YONHAP]

Two senior officials — a police officer and a Seoul city government employee — were found dead in suspected suicides Friday amid continued investigations into the Itaewon crowd crush.

A 55-year-old intelligence officer at Yongsan Police Precinct, only identified by his surname Jeong, was found dead at his home around 12:45 p.m. on Friday, according to police. No suicide note has been found, but Jeong was reported to have made phone calls to some colleagues the previous day, suggesting suicide.

Jeong was under an investigation in connection with the Itaewon disaster on Oct. 29 along with his supervising official from the intelligence unit at the Yongsan Police Precinct for allegedly ordering the deletion of an intelligence report that detailed concerns about large crowds in Itaewon ahead of Halloween.

Possible charges against him included abuse of authority and destruction of evidence.

He had been suspended from duties on Wednesday.

Police plan to close his case after looking into the circumstances of his death.

Also on Friday, a senior official from the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s safety support division was found dead at his home at 4:25 p.m., according to police. He is believed to have committed suicide. No suicide note was found at the scene.

The official took a half-day off and did not arrive at work at the city hall on Friday, the Seoul Metropolitan Government said.

The safety support division is in charge of comprehensive measures related to natural disasters, such as heat waves or cold waves, and public safety management plans for festivals.

According to the city government, the official had not worked at the disaster situation room or at the Itaewon site on the day of the disaster, nor had been investigated by the police.

Despite Seoul city’s explanations distancing the official’s death from the Itaewon tragedy, the officer was found to be the final approver of the documents of emergency checks on local festival safety measures and psychological counseling programs regarding the disaster. The Korea JoongAng Daily was unable to reach the safety support division on Sunday for more information on the official’s work related to the Itaewon disaster.

The Special Investigation Headquarters of the National Police Agency has been conducting a probe on the Yongsan Police Precinct, along with the local fire station and the district office, over allegations they failed to immediately and effectively respond to the crowd surge. Yongsan District, situated in central Seoul, has jurisdiction over the Itaewon area.

Voices of criticism spread among the police, at the city hall, and online following the deaths of two officials. Many criticized the special investigation team for only targeting the front-line working-level officials and failing to investigate the police chiefs or the Ministry of Interior and Safety, which is in charge of disaster management.

“An intelligence officer at Yongsan Police Precinct and a senior official at Seoul Metropolitan Government’s safety support division have passed away, and their deaths are believed to be related to the Oct. 29 Itaewon disaster,” said Seo Yong-joo, deputy spokesman for the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea on Saturday, adding, “It should be revealed in detail what is behind their deaths.”

In response to heavy criticism, the Special Investigation Headquarters issued a statement on Sunday.

“We are humbly listening to various opinions related to the investigation of this case,” the statement read.

“In this case, a number of institutions are subject to investigation, and determining the facts of each institution’s preliminary plan, on-site response, situation measures and reports is the first thing to find out the cause and responsibility of the accident,” it added. “Based on the facts confirmed through the basic investigation, we plan to expand the scope of the investigation soon.”

The special investigation unit on Sunday summoned the district office of Yongsan and the Seoul Transportation Corporation as witnesses. On the previous day, it summoned employees from Yongsan Police Precinct, Yongsan district office, and Yongsan fire station to investigate the process of handling on-site measures and situations before and after the disaster.

Meanwhile, the head of the Yongsan District Office Park Hee-young was prohibited Friday from leaving the country by the Special Investigation Headquarters.

Park has been booked on charges of neglecting to prepare safety measures and accident prevention in Itaewon during the Halloween weekend and ineffectively responding to the disaster.

Along with charges of accidental homicide by occupational negligence, the Yongsan District head is also suspected of lying of her whereabouts after saying she inspected the Itaewon site twice on Oct. 29 before the disaster.

The Special Investigation Headquarters is also looking into the connection between a Yongsan District ordinance passed in April that allows dancing in restaurants in the district with the fatal crowd crush. The headquarters believes that the ordinance possibly exacerbated the incident as businesses in Itaewon operated like clubs on the day of the disaster.

Park is the second person to be prohibited from overseas travel by the special investigation unit. The head of Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon, who is being investigated for charges of illegal construction, was also told to stay in the country. The hotel is located right next to the downhill alley where the incident occurred.

The number of deaths in the deadly crowd crush in Itaewon rose by one to a total of 157 on Friday. It is the first time in 10 days that the death toll from the disaster, compiled by the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, has increased.

The additional death was a Korean soldier who was declared brain dead and donated organs.

President Yoon Suk-yeol and First Lady Kim Keon-hee visited Ewha Woman’s University Mokdong Hospital on Nov. 2 and 10 to console the soldier’s family.

Of the dead, 131 are Korean nationals and 26 are foreigners. Two of the bodies of the foreigners are awaiting repatriation.

In total, 197 were injured, and 11 are still hospitalized.

BY SEO JI-EUN [seo.jieun1@joongang.co.kr]