South Korean government’s lack of coping capabilities

By Jongyeop Jeong, 12th Grade

On the evening of Saturday, 29 October, South Korea experienced its worst Halloween. In Itaewon, Seoul’s most well-known nightlife neighborhood, over 100,000 people — primarily teenagers in their teens and 20s — were gathered. Chaos broke out shortly after 10 pm on a narrow street close to Itaewon station, and witnesses claimed to have seen masses swarming in various directions and individuals losing their balance on the slope, setting off a domino reaction. People tripped and knocked one another over, stacking them on top of one another and trapping them. The catastrophic Halloween crush resulted in 156 deaths and 151 injuries, about 26 of the dead being foreigners. The Korean Government is being criticized for its insufficient post-measures and attitude toward the incident.

Crowds in Itaewon at night are not unusual, as it is recognized as one of the most renowned places in Korea for entertaining nightlife. It’s also where most foreign tourists visit and the main area where foreigners live in Seoul. Moreover, Itaewon has long been a prominent location to celebrate Halloween, mainly since the festival has grown more common in Asia. However, pandemic crowd size restrictions and mask regulations have kept celebrations to a minimum for the previous two years. This was the first Halloween since the nation lifted these limitations, making it significant for many eager participants in Seoul and foreign tourists and citizens from other countries to participate in the event. Hotels and ticketed activities in the area were fully booked months in advance, and large crowds were anticipated.

Alas, only after the disaster got severe was when the police started to take action to identify the victims of the tragic night. Last Sunday, the Government admitted their lack of prudence for not deploying enough security forces and wrongly predicting an average level of crowds, but added that “a considerable number” of police were sent to other parts of Seoul in response to expected crowds. However, hours before the disaster, citizens had been reporting to the police that they were likely to be crushed at the scene, which is contradictory to the Government’s argument that they could not foresee the urgent situation. The Government has since then been facing growing criticism as their sluggish response to the emergency calls continues to be publicized. 

This “government responsibility theory” is gaining attention as the National Police Agency reported that the police chiefs were found to have recognized the situation one or two hours after the Itaewon disaster –that is, the people who should’ve gotten notified first, were the last ones to be briefed. 

“It’s impossible to ask for legal responsibility, as nobody was responsible.” “It was difficult to have safety control in advance for an incident without an organizer.” These are some quotes of what Korean politicians said soon after the incident. Clearly, they were trying to avoid the responsibility. As absurd as this is, some Korean government officials blamed the people who participated in the festival for not being “cautious” enough or Halloween itself. People get out to the streets because they trust in the Government that they’ll guarantee their safety outside. Even though they have apologized now, this is highly disappointing as this should’ve been their initial attitude. Many Koreans are still dissatisfied with the Government, as it seems they changed their position merely because of the hostile public’s view about their general management.

People expect that there will be a compensation suit against the state, as there are precedents. For instance, the court ruled in favor of the bereaved families in a lawsuit filed by the victims’ families of the 2014 ferry MV Sewol accident. The Halloween incident is comparable to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, in which 97 soccer fans in the stadium were killed, and more than 700 were injured. The prime minister apologized 23 years after the happening, admitting its negligence. This persistent attitude of the British Parliament to take responsibility is evaluated to be a drastic contrast to the Korean Government, which they are trying to avoid any type of responsibility. 

That night’s initial panic and terror transformed into nationwide devastation and a search for accountability. If the correct measures were taken beforehand –that is, police’s crowd control– many lives would have been saved. It’s unbelievable how the government authorities initially negligently denied responsibility but suddenly changed their attitude not to look as inept.


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