October 25, 2023
SEOUL – On a Saturday night in October, dozens of people were lined up outside the Waikiki Beach Pub in the narrow alley behind the Hamilton Hotel, in Itaewon, Seoul.
“We should have arrived before 8:30 p.m.,” one said. “There are always lines around 8:30 p.m. these days during the weekend. I heard that we need to wait more than 30 minutes to enter.”
It was not the only packed bar on Itaewon World Food Street, the center of Itaewon nightlife. Most bars along the street were full of partygoers singing and chatting away, while bar staff promoted their establishments outside.
It is hard to imagine that just a few steps away, 159 were killed and at least 196 were seriously injured in a crowd crush last year.
A year on from tragedy
Despite the bustle nearby, the area around the entrance to the alleyway where the disaster happened was quiet. Sticky note messages of condolence plastered a memorial wall — but no one was there to read the messages or add to them that day.
For survivors, the bereaved families of the victims and the rescuers, the events of last Halloween are not so easy to forget.
“They say memories fade as time goes by, but that’s not the case for me and my wife,” said Choi Joung-joo, whose daughter Yu-jin died in the disaster. “Yu-jin was our only child. We miss her more every day. As time passes, our memories of Yu-jin are getting clearer, and I’m sure the other bereaved families feel the same way.”
The longing for his daughter turns to disappointment and anger, he said, noting that not much has changed since her death.
“Nothing has changed this year. No high-ranking official has taken responsibility nor sincerely apologized for what happened to the families in person,” said Choi. “No one took the time to explain to us why the events unfolded the way they did. They only said simple apologies out of respect. It feels like they’re ostracizing us.”
Sincere apologies are among a list of things the bereaved families and victims of the tragedy have demanded of the government since the tragedy.
Two civic groups, the Itaewon Disaster Bereaved Families and the Itaewon Disaster Citizens’ Task Force, were formed as support groups for families and individuals affected by the incident.
Together, they have marched, organized rallies and held press conferences to urge for the truth about the disaster to be revealed, apologies be made, and justice be served for victims of the tragedy.
On Oct. 18, the two groups held a press conference in front of the presidential office — less than 2 kilometers from where the disaster happened — to invite President Yoon Suk Yeol to console the bereaved families during their memorial ceremony.
The ceremony will take place on Sunday, exactly a year after the tragedy. The civic groups also handed their invitations to party members of the National Assembly to join the ceremony.
“The president never apologized to us in person, nor did he urge for the truth to be revealed about the incident, but we would like to extend our invitation to the president to be there to console the bereaved families and victims during the ceremony,” said Kim Ho-kyung, mother of the late Kim Eui-hyun, during the Oct. 18 press conference.
Power of remembrance
The Seoul Metropolitan Government and the bereaved family members have been quarreling for some time over a memorial to remember the tragedy and the victims affected by it.
After a makeshift memorial near Itaewon Station was removed in December, the Seoul Metropolitan Government suggested moving it to the fourth basement floor of Noksapyeong Station, but the bereaved families declined.
Noksapyeong Station has a cavernous basement that is sometimes used as an exhibition space, but it is a stop away from Itaewon, and the families said the memorial would be hard to access and feel cramped underground.
Instead, the bereaved families erected a makeshift altar in front of Seoul City Hall without permission in February, and have argued for a memorial to be built at the site of the tragedy to honor the victims.
“It really felt like they were just trying to push us away from the public eye,” said Choi. After the incident, Choi was invited to his daughter’s university — New York University Tisch School of the Arts — to attend its memorial ceremony in February. The university permanently designated a classroom in the department building as a memorial to honor Yu-jin with a picture and essay she had submitted as an assignment.
Choi brought his daughter’s memorial up as an example of how he hopes other victims of the crowd surge would be honored in Korea.
“The bereaved families aim to build a memorial near Itaewon Station, but the kind of memorial we want to erect isn’t a dark space that reminds you of death,” said Choi. “We hope it’ll be a bright and safe area that breathes life.”
On Sept. 25, Itaewon Disaster Bereaved Families, the Itaewon Disaster Citizens’ Task Force and the Itaewon Special Tourist Zone Organization announced they would designate the alley at the center of the accident as the “Road of Memory and Safety” by Oct. 26. Three bulletin boards are to be installed along the alley, with an explanation of the incident and pictures and short messages written to honor the victims.
“We know that just because we urge our society to remember the tragedy and the fallen victims, it doesn’t mean that our children will come back home,” said Choi. “But our society will start to take shape for the better as we remember them in our hearts. To prevent similar incidents from happening again in the future, to create a safer place for the future generation to live in, we need to remember — and one way of doing that is creating a memorial or space to remember the victims.”
Unsteady return to normal
Itaewon itself appears to be recovering from the tragedy. According to a report in July from the Seoul Metropolitan Government and Shinhan Card, overall spending in Itaewon had recovered to approximately 98.2 percent of what it was before the tragedy.
But some areas are still run down, including the entrance to the alley that was the center of the crush, where most casualties occurred.
The shock and sadness brought by last year’s crowd crush have made many people uneasy about returning to the area. Some said that is the reason they walk faster when they pass by certain areas.
“I came here to celebrate my friend’s birthday and enjoy a girls’ night out, but I didn’t feel comfortable coming back to this area to party. I even felt guilty and sorry for the victims when I passed this alley looking at messages of mourning posted on walls,” said a university student surnamed Jung.
Some say they just want to enjoy Halloween.
“It is time to move on. There is nothing wrong with Itaewon itself. So, visiting and hanging out in the Itaewon area is OK this year. I have visited Itaewon on Halloween annually, wearing a costume, so now my friends and I are walking on eggshells as to whether we can throw a party in Itaewon,” said a hospital worker named Shin. As an area known for its foreign restaurants and bars, Itaewon has long been the center of Halloween festivities in Korea.
Shin is not alone. Although fewer partygoers are expected to show up in the Itaewon area than before, local businesses still expect people to gather.
A professional costume makeup artist spoke on condition of anonymity, saying, “As a person who has provided Halloween makeup every year on Halloween for hundreds of people for several years, I predict that most people in Halloween costumes will go to Gangnam or Hongdae instead this year. However, looking at the atmosphere and public opinion, Itaewon would still attract quite a lot of people.”
Hotels in the Itaewon area are nearly all booked up already.
According to availability on the online travel agency Agoda, most of the rooms in the area were booked up as of Oct. 17, including at the Hamilton Hotel — just steps from where the tragedy occurred. For comparison, Yeouido, which is a central location but not a popular spot for Halloween, still had plenty of rooms available.
Debate has swirled online about celebrating Halloween this year in Itaewon, regarding the appropriateness and the need to honor the victims.
In a post titled, “Is it inappropriate to party at Itaewon during Halloween this year?” on the online community site Nate Pann, some comments read: “I wouldn’t if I were you” and “It’s only been a year. So many people died at once there, it seems extremely thoughtless to go.”
However, other comments differed, including, “You shouldn’t criticize those who go because it’s their choice” and “What about the failing businesses near the Itaewon district? We should go to support them.”
“What was shown in the media is not everything,” said vintage shop owner Shin Ki-chil. “Everyone seems to think that Itaewon is dangerous, or that you’re going to die if you come here. But that’s not it. I hope this stereotype disappears so more people will visit our neighborhood.”
The bereaved father Choi agreed, saying it is not the Halloween festivities at Itaewon that are the problem. “You should celebrate Halloween at Itaewon this year if you want,” he said.
“All we ask is for you to stay safe and remember what happened last year to prevent something similar from happening again.”