November 2, 2022
SEOUL – Top South Korean officials have issued their first apologies over the Halloween crowd crush that killed at least 156 people, while others have vowed to plug deficiencies in the country’s current system to effectively manage massive crowds.
As grief turns to rage, people are questioning why there were no proper measures by government agencies to prevent overcrowding.
The authorities also drew flak for deploying more police officers to manage a large-scale demonstration last Saturday than to manage the 100,000-strong crowd expected in Seoul’s nightlife hub Itaewon.
Prime Minister Han Duck-soo on Tuesday admitted the government needs to overhaul its public safety system to address current deficiencies, while President Yoon Suk-yeol suggested the use of drones and other digital means to better manage crowds in the future.
Mr Han said in a briefing to foreign media: “We will prepare a crowd accident prevention and safety control system through a detailed investigation of the cause, to prevent accidents like this from recurring.”
Hundreds of partygoers attending Halloween events in Itaewon got caught in an entangled mess when two crowds moving shoulder to shoulder in opposite directions converged in a narrow downhill alley, causing some people to tumble and others to fall like dominoes.
The death toll is expected to increase as 33 people were seriously hurt, while another 124 suffered minor injuries. Most of the casualties are in their 20s and 30s.
Caving under growing public pressure, at least five officials have come out on Tuesday to apologise for the deadly crowd crush.
Among them was Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min, who was under fire for saying earlier that dispatching more police or emergency personnel would not have helped to prevent the tragedy.
Bowing during a Parliament session, he voiced “deep regrets” over his remarks, saying: “I deeply apologise to the people that the recent accident occurred despite the state holding infinite responsibility for the people’s safety.”
National police chief Yoon Hee-keun admitted that the police’s response to multiple emergency reports about the severity of the situation right before the deadly crowd crush had been “insufficient”.
Bowing his head in apology during a press briefing, he vowed a thorough investigation to “clearly uncover the truth and determine responsibility”.
Mr Nam Hwa-yeong, acting commissioner-general of the National Fire Agency, expressed regret at the high number of casualties and admitted that there was a “complete shortage of emergency responders”.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon and Mr Park Hee-young, who heads the Yongsan District Office that oversees Itaewon, have vowed action to prevent another tragedy.
Their apologies come in the wake of numerous media reports that blamed the authorities for the crowd crush.
The Korea Times, for one, said in an editorial that the police and municipal officials neglected the safety of partygoers and failed to take timely and appropriate measures to protect the people.
Even the President has not been spared from criticism. Reports have claimed that the Yongsan police station was short-staffed as it had to deploy officers to protect Mr Yoon and maintain order at the anti-government protest on Saturday.
However, an official told The Straits Times that it is not the local police but the Presidential Security Service that is solely responsible for Mr Yoon’s safety.
As to why the police devote more resources to demonstrations, Prime Minister Han explained that there are serious concerns about clashes between the various groups, especially rival political supporters.
The crowds in Itaewon, however, are peaceful and not politically motivated, he added.
“There are large numbers of people but they didn’t gather to fight,” said Mr Han.
“What’s important is crowd management. One hundred thousand people can flow in a very smooth way… What the police are worried about is substance abuse, sexual harassment and personal fights.”
But he admitted there is “some deficiency in our crowd management” system for events such as Halloween at Itaewon, where no central organiser is tasked with implementing safety measures that must be approved by the local authorities.
Business owners are left to manage crowds on their own, with no specific person or organisation responsible for the overall safety of visitors to the area.
Mr Han said the government will “re-evaluate the total structure of safety and security” and draft appropriate measures to prevent another overcrowding accident.
“We need to overhaul everything and prioritise safety first,” he added.