November 10, 2022
SEOUL – When the Sewol ferry sank in April 2014, claiming 304 lives including 250 high school students, it was simply unbelievable that so many precious lives could be lost in coastal waters. The ferry capsized 24 kilometers off the island Jindo on the southwestern coast, but rescue operations were incredulously ineffective. The botched response severely dented public trust in the Park Geun-hye administration and eventually contributed to her impeachment.
The Halloween weekend disaster in Itaewon, in which 156 young souls perished, is even harder to comprehend in that it occurred at the very heart of the nation’s capital. The deadly crowd crush occurred in an alleyway, merely 1.5 kilometers from the presidential office.
As the horrific disaster unfolded in utter chaos and confusion throughout the night, with emergency workers, medical personnel and many passersby performing CPR and carrying bodies on gurneys, no high-ranking officials were in sight — at least on news footage. Hourly updates on the swelling death toll were left to the district fire chief and the head of a community health center.
Watching the mayhem in shock and disbelief, I couldn’t help asking how the authorities didn’t prepare for the size of the crowd. Some 100,000 people had reportedly been expected to throng to Itaewon on that Saturday evening. It was the first Halloween weekend freed from COVID-19 restrictions in three years, a much-awaited occasion for young people to revel in Itaewon, one of their favorite weekend hangouts, and for the businesses to come back to life.
It was reported that the district’s autonomous administration and police focused mainly on dealing with drug use and sexual harassment, the potential crimes most anticipated during the festivities. Crowd control was obviously not prominently included in their duty plans.
Police say they have a blueprint for handling crowds at organized events, but not for spontaneous gatherings like the Itaewon Halloween celebration, which had no central organizer who could be consulted. Even so, did anyone monitor in real time the screens of the many security cameras that must be in place? The sloping narrow alley where the fatal crowd crush happened is always packed with pedestrians even on ordinary weekends; it is the fastest way from the Itaewon subway station to popular bars, clubs and restaurants.
Even worse, it turned out that numerous emergency calls began ringing at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency hours before the disaster, warning of possible deaths and pleading for help to disperse the crowd. They all went unheeded. It means the nation’s emergency management system is severely fractured.
Crowd crushes are not rare in Korea. Does the nation’s young generation need to be traumatized by the avoidable deaths of friends and classmates, and siblings and cousins, yet again before impactful improvement is done?
On Monday, upon the end of the weeklong national mourning period, President Yoon Suk-yeol summoned a meeting to review the national safety system. In the meeting he strongly scolded the police, especially the 137 officers deployed for Halloween in Itaewon, for what he described as an inept response to the crowd surge. He also hinted at a major shake-up in the police ranks.
Yoon is apparently trying to grapple with the loud public outcry denouncing his administration’s incompetence in ensuring public safety and handling emergencies, as well as rising demands to sack related high-ranking officials. He said those responsible will be held strictly accountable, based on ongoing investigations.
The police’s special investigation team has already sped up its probe of six officials, including the Yongsan-gu mayor and the heads of the district police and fire stations. They are accused of failing to prevent or cope adequately with the disaster.
From the way he conducted the meeting, however, Yoon has yet to fully grasp the public’s anger and frustration. Now, six months into his presidency, he needs to take his own role as the head of state of the Republic of Korea more seriously. As the plaque on his desk, presented by US President Joe Biden on his visit, says, the buck stops with him.
After declaring a period of national mourning on the day after the disaster, Yoon paid his respects to the deceased at the memorial altar in front of Seoul City Hall every day for seven consecutive days. He also attended memorial services at a Buddhist temple, a Protestant church and a Catholic cathedral.
During his daily visits to the memorial altar — a unique way to mourn — Yoon could have felt the weight of his position as president who must take responsibility for the safety of the entire people of this country. The people are watching intently how he resolves the problems exposed by the tragic incident. He appears to be on a short leash; calls for his resignation have been heard at memorial vigils attended by tens of thousands of mourners. The aftermath of the Sewol ferry sinking can teach him a lesson and serve as a warning.
Ironically, the disaster scene will be on the route between his office and his new residence. The ill-fated alley could be a daily reminder of his duties toward public safety.
At the same, it is hoped that politicians of the rival parties will cease unproductive partisan strife taking advantage of the disaster and cooperate to fix the sagging economy and to handle the mounting security threats from North Korea. Toward that end, Yoon will have to move first to approach the opposition and demonstrate political skills to elicit their sympathy and cooperation. The past six months have painfully proven how a prolonged partisan stalemate can make the country unstable and erode diplomacy.
Last but not least, Korean society at large must work together to help the bereaved families cope with their loss and grief. There must also be efforts to support Itaewon to be reborn as a safer and more vibrant hot spot for youths to have fun and enjoy global culture — and hopefully for the young victims who so loved the place to be remembered.
By Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. — Ed.