South Korea concert victims' families call for leniency

South Korea concert victims' families call for leniency
Police officials examine the scene of an accident at a shopping district in Seongnam October 17, 2014.

SEOUL - The families of 16 people who died after falling through a ventilation shaft at a South Korean open-air concert asked for leniency on Monday for event organisers despite fresh concerns about safety six months after a ferry disaster.

Opposition lawmakers chided the government for a lack of substantive improvements in safety despite repeated pledges to tighten standards, with one member of parliament saying: "The Republic of Korea has become the republic of disasters".

"The government needs to be making swift checks of all public facilities around the country to prevent these accidents that could happen any time," opposition leader Moon Hee-sang told a party policy meeting.

The victims were standing on the cover of a ventilation shaft to get a better view of the pop concert featuring girl group 4Minute when it gave way, plunging them about 20 metres (66 feet) underground to their deaths. Eleven people were injured, nine of them seriously, in the accident last Friday.

It was the latest in a string of accidents in South Korea, including the sinking of a ferry in April that left 304 people dead or missing, and re-ignited questions about safety in the country and added pressure on authorities to tighten standards.

A spokesman for the victims' families told a news conference on Monday that they had reached an agreement with the event organisers for compensation for the victims.

"Considering the accident was not caused by malice or intent, we wish that criminal punishment for related people will be minimal," Han Jae-chang, who represents the families, told a news conference.

The government's handling of the Sewol ferry disaster was widely criticised, and a group of victims' families is demanding that a special prosecutor investigate the sinking and rescue operation.

After the latest accident, police are investigating officials from the city of Seongnam, south of Seoul where the event was held, and the provincially-run Institute of Science and Technology Promotion and news provider EDaily, which organised the concert.

An official with the institute that organised the event was found dead on Saturday morning, apparently having committed suicide by jumping off the 10th floor of a building, an investigation spokesman said.

Late on Sunday, investigators said there were no personnel on site to ensure crowd safety despite attendance of more than 700 at the concert near a mall in a busy office district.

Most of the victims were people who worked in the area, stopping to watch the show on their way home.

The spate of accidents has revived concerns about a sometimes-cavalier attitude towards safety in South Korea, which consistently ranks near the bottom in seat-belt use in cars and among the worst in road fatalities among OECD countries.

"The average person tends to think he or she is doing a good job, but you see a lot of people in this country in rear seats not wearing belts and drivers using mobile phones," said Shim Junseop, professor of public service at Chung-ang University.

"I don't think there is much visible improvement."

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