Itaewon tragedy: South Korean authorities take action

Our previous article covering the tragedy at Itaewon was about how the causes of the tragedy were being determined. Now we will talk about how the government has tackled the consequences of the fatal crowd collapse and what measures will be taken to ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again.

In the days following the tragedy, key government figures, including Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min, Chief of the National Police Agency Yoon Hee-keun, as well as President Yoon Suk-yeol himself, apologized to the public for what had happened.

On October 30, Yoon Suk-yeol declared a period of national mourning until November 5. Most Halloween festivals, events and parades were cancelled. All civil servants were required to wear black ribbons as a sign of mourning for the dead.

The US Embassy lowered the American flag to half-mast to honor the memory of the victims of the tragedy.

Since October 31, memorial altars have been opened in Seoul Square and in Yongsan-gu, where the tragedy occurred. President Yoon Suk-yeol and First Lady Kim Keon-hee visited them almost daily, also attending Buddhist, Protestant and Catholic memorial services.

On October 30, the South Korean government declared the Yongsan-gu municipality in Seoul, which includes the Itaewon district, a special disaster zone. In this regard, it was decided to fully pay for the treatment of the injured at the expense of the state medical insurance fund, and a separate employee of the local administration is responsible for each victim in serious condition.

Compensation will be paid to the families of the victims: 15 million won ($11,000) for funeral and travel expenses, plus 20 million won ($14,000) as material assistance. Survivors will receive from 5 to 10 million won depending on the severity of injuries.

On November 3, Yoon Suk-yeol commissioned the establishment of a “one-stop” support center where victims’ families and others affected by the Halloween crowd crash can continue to receive medical and other assistance after the end of the national mourning period. “The “one-stop” support center, which is going to be set up at the Prime Minister’s Office in conjunction with the relevant ministries, will provide all the necessary services from one place, from funeral arrangements for victims to treatment, as well as providing cash assistance and psychological therapy.”

It is laudable that the authorities are ready to provide not only material, but also psychological help. According to Han Duck-soo, families of the dead, the injured and ordinary citizens affected by the fatal crowd crush, which killed at least 155 people, will attend government-sponsored psychological treatment programs. The National Center for Disaster and Trauma and Seoul Central Mental Health Clinic will provide mental health care. This is important because of the 1,371 police officers sent to the scene that fateful night, 235 sought psychological help.

 The reason for this is the intense media coverage of the disaster, which includes the problem of fake news and an overabundance of shocking vivid content on the Internet.

Since the disaster, social media and online platforms have been flooded with images and videos of dozens of victims lying on the street, scantily clad and bare-faced (South Korean laws require faces to be blurred in such situations, as photos cause reputational damage).

As early as October 30, social media platforms and online resources in South Korea urged users to refrain from spreading unfounded information or disturbing videos. Experts explained that repeatedly viewing a large number of graphic photos can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which causes a person to relive the event through nightmares and flashbacks, or feel guilty.

On October 31, Prime Minister Han Duk-soo already urged people to refrain from posting hate comments or sharing videos and unconfirmed information. He was quoted as saying: “On the Internet and social networks, some users post hateful comments about the victims and share false information and provocative footage of the fatal accident…I implore users to categorically refrain from such appalling behavior.”

Online platforms have also been quick to set up countermeasures. In related search results and video recommendations, social media platforms prioritized videos from news channels while some videos were removed or given an increased age limit. There were also requests from social media platforms to their users to refrain from posting or sharing sensitive content related to the tragedy, recalling that according to company guidelines, users may be ordered to remove violent or sensitive content, and user accounts may be permanently banned if a user violates the rules.

As for the fake reports, in the initial stages of the disaster, bogus stories about its causes, such as a gas leak, a fire, or poisoning with candy containing drugs, quickly spread on social networks. The graphic photos and videos accompanying these posts were quite convincing at first glance, and the “terrifying eyewitness accounts” made people accept them as the truth.

The fake reports soon gave way to numerous posts about who was responsible for this tragedy, with well-defined theses “thrown in.” It turns out that in 2021, 800 police officers had been sent to oversee Halloween celebrations, while only 200 were dispatched in 2022. The reason is that after President Yoon Suk-yeol moved from the Blue House to Yongsan (the district where the tragedy occurred), the police have been protecting him, instead of doing their direct duties. In response to this, the police provided the media with evidence that during Halloween celebrations in Itaewon in 2017, there were 90 officers, in 2018 – 37, and in 2019 – 39; in 2020 and 2021 – 38 and 85 respectively, and in 2022 – 137. The claim that the police force had been downsized because the Yongsan police officers had been transferred to guard the presidential office also turned out to be fake news. On top of everything else, it sounds incendiary. The security guards at the presidential office building have nothing to do with the Yongsan Police whose jurisdiction includes Itaewon as they belong to a separate police unit.

The true colors of provocation were finally clear when a similar statement was made on social networks by Nam Young-hee, deputy head of the Institute for Democracy, a think-tank for the Democratic Party of Korea. Of course, this was accompanied by calls for the president and mayor of Seoul to resign. The post was deleted after Nam had been hounded online by citizens who pointed out that she was using the tragedy for publicity.

Anyhow, the Democrats are quite accustomed to being involved in this type of controversy, and it is no coincidence that the conservative newspaper, JoongAng Ilbo, noted that “this tragedy must not repeat the scenario of the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014, which was used by politicians and civil groups for their own political agenda. Citizens must rationally filter fake news, while the government must find the truth and take effective measures to prevent such disasters in the future”.

 And now let’s get back to the measures being taken by the authorities. Yoon Suk-yeol immediately instructed to eliminate the systemic flaws identified during the analysis of what had happened. He noted the need for a security system aimed at preventing tragedies during any mass events, including spontaneous ones, and called for the widespread use of drones and other advanced technology.

 In accordance with the instructions of the President, it is planned to develop a system within which, in the event of a dangerous situation with a mass gathering of people, the authorities will be able to promptly restrict the movement of vehicles and crowds. However, the preparation of such a system will require considerable time, since it is necessary to determine the extent of spontaneous gatherings of people where it will be possible to launch the regulatory mechanism.

On November 3, the South Korean government decided to start checking compliance with safety rules and regulations at festivals and other mass events in order to prevent such tragedies. 12 government departments and 17 regional administrations formed a commission that, from November 10 to 30, was engaged in checking the safety of public events and crowded places, where the number of visitors exceeds 10,000 people per hour. Concert venues, sports facilities, markets, and regional festivals were inspected. The main attention was paid to the general condition of the facilities, the availability of evacuation routes, compliance with fire safety rules, as well as determining the maximum number of participants in the events and measures to “safely disperse” crowds after the completion of events.

On November 4, Han Duck-soo highlighted the problem of illegal additions to buildings that reduce the width of sidewalks. He urged the local authorities to verify the presence of such extensions and take appropriate action.  This issue arose due to the fact that the Hamilton Hotel had allegedly built an illegal hillside terrace in the alley where the tragedy occurred, as a result of which part of the narrow alley became even narrower.

 Another consequence of the tragedy is that the authorities have paid closer attention to congestion in the subway. According to Seoul Subway data for 2021, the average density during the morning rush hour in one of the busiest areas was 185%, with the fact that if the density level exceeds 150%, then passengers cannot move freely in the subway trains at all.

As a result, the government is developing various measures to prevent mass gatherings, including crowd control in the high-density subway stations. It is assumed that an alarm will be given when there are concerns that the density of passengers in subway stations has reached dangerous levels. From November 4, during peak hours, the subway will take measures to control the flow of passengers due to the fear of a crowd crush happening. Now they are being tested, whether it be alerting passengers about the density levels in each subway car or limiting the influx of passengers at the entrance/exit.

 It was also decided to pay attention to teaching safety rules to students in schools at all levels, given that several students had died during the incident in the Itaewon district.

 Summing up, we can say that the authorities quickly dealt with the immediate consequences of the tragedy, avoiding irritation of most of the victims and their families. This will be credited to Yoon Suk-yeol, since blaming him for inaction or ignoring the tragedy will not work. As for the measures to reform the emergency response system and security checks, the main thing here is not to slip into campaign mode while acting in the wake of the tragedy but simply forgetting about everything when the furor dies down. But we will have to wait and see what happens in the long run.

Nonetheless, it looks like the Democrats are politicizing the tragedy, which will be the subject of the author’s next article.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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