October 30, 2023
SEOUL – A memorial event on Sunday for the victims of the Halloween crowd crush tragedy in Itaewon turned into a political slugfest as opposition parties slammed South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol for his absence.
Some critics in the opposition camp are even calling for his impeachment.
Some 10,000 people swarmed the open plaza in front of Seoul’s City Hall to remember the 159 people who died after two surging crowds converged in an alley in Itaewon on Oct 29, 2022. The resulting crush caused some to fall, with others stacked on top of them.
The nearly three-hour event – which was also broadcast live online – was attended by many opposition politicians, most of them from the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party (DP), which had co-organised the event with the bereaved families.
Besides speeches by the party representatives and activists, a crush survivor shared her experience. Family members of the victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking also spoke to show support for the Itaewon families.
Opposition leader Lee Jae-myung of DP had called last Friday for President Yoon to issue a formal apology to the victims and their families, and to attend the memorial.
But Mr Yoon’s camp declined the invitation, saying that Sunday’s event was “not a commemoration ceremony, but a political rally”.
Instead, he spoke at a private memorial service held in a church earlier in the day, expressing his condolences to the families and promising to continue building a safe South Korea.
“We will keep working hard to achieve the goal of ensuring safety in the country. We must make sure the sacrifices of the victims do not go to waste,” he said.
While some members of his ruling People’s Power Party eventually turned up at the public memorial event, Mr Yoon’s absence was lambasted by the opposition.
Ms Lee Jeong-mi, leader of the Justice Party, told the crowd: “It is heartbreaking to see the empty chair left for the President, where he should be sitting and expressing his apology.”
In his speech, DP’s Mr Lee accused Mr Yoon’s administration of being “unrepentant” and “only bent on covering the truth”, which the bereaved families are seeking.
Mr Lee also pledged that his party will take the lead to ensure that no more lives will be lost “due to the state’s incompetence and irresponsibility”.
The politicians’ rhetoric did not go down well with the bereaved families and some attendees.
Mr Lee Jung-min, who chairs the Association of Families of Itaewon Disaster Victims, said the victims’ families have no intention of politicising the issue.
The 61-year-old, who lost his daughter in the tragedy, said: “This is a time of mourning our family members, consoling the pain in our hearts and looking back at the nightmare from a year ago. The memorial to remember our lost children is in no way a political rally.”
He reiterated that the families want only a special legislation to be passed so that an independent inquiry can be set up to look into what happened that night and help the families find closure.
Earlier on Sunday, a religious service was held at the site of the tragedy near the Itaewon subway station. A group of nearly 3,000 families and supporters then marched 5km from there to the memorial altar at Seoul City Hall.
Road lanes were closed for the one-hour procession, with police officers stationed along the way to keep the crowds in line.
As they marched, participants were handed placards to hold up by DP members and other volunteers.
The placards called for the victims to be remembered and the truth to be uncovered, and many participants in the procession chanted along the way for the government to apologise and take responsibility.
When the procession reached Mr Yoon’s office in Yongsan, it stopped for about 10 minutes, as participants jeered and shouted: “Impeach Yoon Suk-yeol!”
Danish national Thorsten Hansen, 51, who was in Itaewon that tragic night, took part in the procession. He had had a narrow escape – he left the alley 10 minutes before the crush happened.
The sales director told The Straits Times he was not comfortable with the procession turning into a political rally. “Tragedies should be the last thing for politics to come into. I thought today’s event was to commemorate the victims, and not this. We should be doing this out of respect for the victims and not for political gain.”
A Korea University undergraduate who wanted to be known only as Ahn said she attended the memorial as a citizen and did not want to get involved in politics. “I guess everyone has a different approach to memorials. To the political parties, they could be a useful platform, but to me, preventing a recurrence of such incidents is more important,” said the 24-year-old.
“I am still reeling from the shock that in such a metropolis like Seoul, people can just die because there is insufficient protection by the authorities.”