The Itaewon tragedy, a possible step towards national unity or a “Sewol” for Yoon Suk-yeol?

On October 30, 2022, a deadly stampede in Seoul’s Itaewon district tragically killed more than 150 people and left 150 others with various degrees of injuries. The stampede was the worst tragedy in South Korea since the Sewol ferry crash in 2014, which killed 304 people.

It should be noted right away that the Itaewon district has long enjoyed a reputation as a “major entertainment center”. It borders the Yongsan district, which is currently home to the administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol, and previously was a vicinity occupied by American troops until 2017, who naturally, needed an entertainment infrastructure. Thus, Itaewon became the main nightlife spot in the center of Seoul, the main residential area of expats, appealing to foreigners, and thus the most popular place for fans of Halloween parties.

South Koreans became acquainted with Halloween in the 1990s. At the time, many media outlets called these events “strange” and accused them of kowtowing to the West because of the costumes and atmosphere.

In the evening of October 29, about 130,000 people gathered at the celebration near the Hamilton Hotel. This was the first Halloween event in Seoul in three years after the country had lifted many restrictions related to COVID-19, and therefore the crowd occupied almost all the free space in the district.

As of October 31, 156 people (101 women and 55 men) had died as a result of the incident, including 26 foreigners from 14 countries (including four citizens of the Russian Federation). Another 152 people, including 15 foreigners, suffered injuries of varying severity. The overwhelming majority of the dead and injured were women (100) and young people aged 17-30: 103 were 20-year-olds, 31 were 30-year-olds and 12 were teenagers.

In the initial days, there were various rumors about the “starting point” of the stampede. Some claimed that the crowd had gathered to see a celebrity visiting the area. Others said that sweets with drugs were distributed in the crowd or the clubs, causing the crowd to lose its self-control. Other conjectures were also voiced. In any case, the investigative team that examined the witness statements and surveillance camera data did not find anyone to charge.

Unfortunately, this is a fairly typical disaster scenario of its kind.

President Yoon Suk-yeol personally visited the scene and ordered a thorough investigation into all the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. He also made a special appeal to the public and declared a state mourning that lasted until November 5.

Despite the tragedy, the president’s approval rating suffered no further decline.

Foreign dignitaries also expressed their condolences, including German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and former Japanese Prime Minister Tarō Asō, who were in Seoul at the time.

Numerous heads of state, including the President of the Russian Federation and the Pope, offered their condolences.

It is already clear that the tragedy could have been avoided if security measures had been taken in time. The “debriefing” is now going in two directions: Authorities are finding out exactly what went wrong and what can be done to ensure that such tragedies do not happen again. The head of the police department, Yoon Hee-keun, acknowledged that the actions of police and fire officials had proven to be late and insufficiently efficient. The problems revealed can be summarized as follows:

  1. In the Republic of Korea, there is no experience in regulating spontaneous mass events. If there are organizers, authorities cooperate with them. Even holding a vigil requires regulation and coordination, after which the authorities send the police and take action. There was no specific local organization or company to draw the crowd to the narrow alley or to the Itaewon area as a whole. Experts noted that security lapses were inevitable since it was a spontaneous street party.
  2. Shortly before the tragedy, the 112 emergency call center received numerous calls. Callers advised that the situation was escalating, but emergency squads were not immediately dispatched to the scene of the tragedy. Although the first calls with information that the crowd had thickened and a stampede was possible were received two hours before the tragedy. Perhaps the police authorities were afraid to disperse the crowd and spoil the holiday for the people. Unfortunately, it is a common mistake to hope that nothing will happen in such a situation, because in the case of an “unmotivated crackdown” the career of police officers definitely goes downhill.
  3. Information about the tragedy did not reach some ranks in the police leadership, or only after the fact. The head of the police department, Yoon Hee-geun, learned of the tragedy even later than Yoon Suk-yeol. They are attempting to find out at what stage the failure occurred.
  4. The loud music and festive atmosphere significantly reduced the ability to manage the crowd. This means that the orders of the police were not heard.
  5. Some critics claimed that ambulances and rescue workers could not reach the scene in time due to traffic congestion. Similarly, one of the police officers decided to go to the scene of the tragedy by private car.
  6. They also said that there was a lack of a surveillance camera system that could have recorded the situation in time. Narrow corridors in the “old city” are places that are not equipped with cameras in the first place. On the other hand, time passes from the moment officers see the crowd on the screen to the moment people arrive there.
  7. It cannot be said that no police were at the scene of the tragedy. But 200 police officers were apparently not enough. Moreover, they had not only to regulate the movement of the crowd but also to ensure security in an area full of dangerous spots. Therefore, those who were at the scene of the tragedy could do nothing, and those who were nearby could not make their way through the crowd in time.

We will follow up on this tragedy for two reasons.

First, the analysis of the causes of such a catastrophe and the measures taken by the state to prevent it can serve as both a positive and a negative example for Russia and any other country regarding the problem of integrated security.

Second, it is already clear how the opposition is trying to politicize the issue, as this tragedy came “very opportune” for them. The fact is that the prosecutors are currently actively investigating former President Moon Jae-in and the current leader of the Democrats, Lee Jae-myung. So far, no direct charges have been brought against either of them, but judging from the investigation, these charges are much more substantiated than those against Park Geun-hye. And there is more at stake than just corruption.

If Moon and Lee are imprisoned, however, it will mean both a technical and a reputational defeat for the entire Democratic camp. Against the backdrop of such political events, the author assumes that the Democratic opposition will use this tragedy in the same way as they did five years ago when they used the Sewol ferry tragedy to oust Park Geun-hye.

First, the Democrats are calling for a special investigation to “bring the truth to light” (read: present the correct view). Second, they are calling for the resignation of high-ranking officials, not only those who are truly responsible for the tragedy, but also higher-ups, up to and including the prime minister. Third, opposition activists are trying to blame Yoon Suk-yeol for the police allegedly guarding the president’s office instead of helping people. However, these police officers are subordinated differently. Rather, the problem is that there were rallies involving thousands of participants from both the left and right almost simultaneously with the tragedy. A rally by the left calling for Yoon’s resignation was attended by 200,000 people, according to organizers, and a number of police detachments were sent there.

In this context, the Halloween tragedy could become Yoon’s counterpart to the Sewol disaster, given the appropriate media coverage.

And if we turn away from politics, the author understands that any tragedy of this nature requires a search for the culprit. It is easier for people to believe in negligence or malice than in a combination of circumstances. But as a colleague of the author said, “What happened is not the fault of the authorities, the opposition, the madmen, the children, or the punishment of the gods. It is an accident. Yes, the question is why they did not provide more security this year, although it could have been done, but that’s all. And society’s job is to help those in need, learn the lessons, and prevent such tragedy from happening in the future.”

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


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