The Koreas

South Korea’s Tortuous Reckoning With the Itaewon Tragedy

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The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

South Korea’s Tortuous Reckoning With the Itaewon Tragedy

A special counsel finally takes off after more than 550 days of the government’s dawdling and muddling. 

South Korea’s Tortuous Reckoning With the Itaewon Tragedy

A memorial space set up near Exit 1 of the Itaewon metro station to commemorate the Halloween crowd crush, as seen on Nov. 1, 2022.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ *Youngjin

The shock and emotional distress of tragic news momentarily petrify those who just learned about it. Their senses become heightened as to their whereabouts, activities, and thoughts. Ask anyone what they were up to at the time of the 9/11 attacks. They would remember every single detail of their moments as if a flashbulb burst to capture them in a photograph. In cognitive psychology, this is called flashbulb memory, a form of trauma with life-long memory retention.

For South Koreans, the most recent collective agony happened on the night of October 29, 2022. In Itaewon, a multicultural neighborhood in Seoul known for Halloween celebrations, a countless number of people were packed into a 4-yard-wide, 43-yard-long sloping alleyway. People tripped and fell, while more people barged from behind, generating a human cascade. In total, 159 young people died of asphyxiation and cardiac arrest in the crowd crush.

Ask any Seoulites, and they remember exactly how far or close they were to the catastrophe when the news broke. What everyone also remembers is that the South Korean presidential office was less than a mile from this harrowing scene. The national psyche has yet to grasp this proximity of presidential power to the disaster unleashed by the government’s pure neglect and unpreparedness.

Nobody came forward to take responsibility nor resigned. The public had so many questions: Why were there no police squads for crowd management? Why didn’t anybody anticipate a crowd surge? Police investigations found ample evidence of professional negligence, but left the highest rung intact. The opposition Democratic Party (DP) passed a special bill mandating a fresh round of investigation in January 2024. But President Yoon Suk-yeol vetoed the bill.

Still, South Korea’s getting closer to the truth as the ruling People Power Party (PPP) and the DP passed a new, albeit compromised, Itaewon special counsel bill on May 2. Both parties agreed to remove the special counsel’s power to request that prosecutors or Corruption Investigation Commission file for a court warrant on their behalf if the authorities in question refuse to hand over relevant materials to the special counsel. Additionally, it can no longer request, for a closer look and the bigger picture, documents pertaining to closed cases. 

The compromise was the result of Yoon’s tête-à-tête with Lee Jae-myung, the DP leader, on April 29. Although the DP has held a parliamentary majority since before Yoon took office, the president had shunned Lee at all costs. Their political rivalry runs deep, and Yoon regards him as a crook under investigation for his alleged part in a disreputable urban development scheme. Lee denies this charge, claiming that prosecutors cowering under Yoon are out for vengeance.

Still, Yoon had no choice but to face Lee after the liberal camp routed the PPP in April general elections and gained almost two-thirds of the National Assembly seats. During their conversation, Yoon expressed his willingness to accept a weaker Itaewon special counsel, hence the new bipartisan Itaewon special bill.

Although the Itaewon special counsel is deprived of statutory power to conduct a forceful investigation, the bereaved families are optimistic that public support, as shown at the general elections, will be fundamental in prying honesty and cooperation from the authorities.

There’s a lot for the special counsel to unpack and reveal.

Internal police reports circulated throughout October 2022 anticipated a huge crowd in Itaewon as COVID-19 regulations were lifted. One of them mentioned “crowd swarming” and “disorder.” A police analysis for Yongsan, the district containing Itaewon, even pinpointed 10 p.m. Saturday as the potential peak time for crowd-induced accidents and crimes. (The crowd crush happened around 10:15 p.m. on Saturday.) Citizens alerted the police in advance, too. Starting at 6 p.m., calls swarmed police hotlines describing people being shoved and falling. 

Yet no authorities thought to implement proper measures, either in advance or as the crowd pressure began to mount. It was a matter that could have easily been prevented by deploying police squads for crowd management like in previous years. On the fateful day, however, almost all the police squads were dispatched to regulate demonstrations around the presidential office. The police allocated only 137 officers to oversee Itaewon, 50 of whom were undercover and focused on making drug-busts. Meanwhile, the Yongsan District Office was busy removing anti-Yoon posters.

Also, when calls warning of a crowd crush inundated the police hotline, the police neglected to redirect police squads to Itaewon, even after the protests ended and the dangerous level of foot traffic was reported to the head of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency. In the past, police officers stationed in small alleys diverted pedestrians, and experts say that a measure as simple as instituting one-way traffic would have prevented the disaster. 

The day after the Itaewon tragedy, Interior Minister Lee Sang-min commented that “compared to previous years, there weren’t that many people.” In fact, about 100,000 people congregate in Itaewon each year on the last Saturday of October, and the day before Lee’s comment, the crowd was larger, at 130,000. He then added that “it wasn’t a problem that we could have prevented by deploying police officers or firefighters beforehand.” From the outset, his comment showcased the government’s default carelessness and subsequent indifference to the Itaewon tragedy.

The former Seoul police chief, Kim Kwang-ho, who stepped down from the top job to take responsibility only in January 2024, still maintains that it was “unrealistic” and a “stretch of the imagination” to have predicted a crowd crush. (South Korea had a major crowd crush in 2005; such incidents are frequent around the globe; Seoul’s municipal research body has been warning of crowd crush as a new sort of urban disaster since 2016.) And the Yongsan District Office chief, Park Hee-young, remarked, rather unprofessionally and self-evidently, that “I’m not God” and refused all responsibility for the disaster.

So far, the government has tried to evade accountability as well, citing South Korea’s Framework Act on the Management of Disasters and Safety (FAMDS). Until its revision in December 2023, the law specified administrative duty and liability only for official events and local festivals where it was clear as to who organized them. The Interior Ministry and Yongsan District Office washed their hands off the Itaewon incident, arguing that “it wasn’t a local festival but just an event.”

But from a more nuanced legalistic, rational, and moral viewpoint, the government is indeed responsible for the Itaewon pandemonium. One Supreme Court precedent ruled that if the literal interpretation of a statute violates society’s sense of justice, the court can exercise analogical application. In other words, even if a statute doesn’t exist for a certain issue or doesn’t distinctly mention it, the court can apply a similar statute for a fair judgment.

This legal nicety notwithstanding, it is the state’s responsibility to prevent, and protect citizens from, any and all disasters – under both the constitution and common sense. Moreover, as FAMDS dictates, it is the state’s responsibility to prevent all disasters, including “social accidents,” and prompt speedy recovery of the victims. The fact that the Itaewon Halloween celebrations had no official convener and were not professionally managed should have been cause for more attention and concern, rather than cover for the government to dismiss and neglect the annual gathering as a spontaneous event. 

Yet, the government’s response has been anything but just and conscientious. It blamed the underlings, rather than the ones who had actual administrative capacity to control police squads. A police special investigation team charged the head of Yongsan Fire Department with professional negligence, when in fact he was the first to arrive at the scene and the firefighting authorities requested police squads for crowd control 15 times.

Meanwhile, Park Hee-young, the Yongsan District Chief who ordered her people to remove anti-Yoon posters rather than check up on Itaewon even after being briefed on the alarming situation, still holds her job. As for the former Seoul Police Chief Kim, prosecutors balked at indicting him until January 2024, more than a year after the disaster. And the officials higher up in the chain of command – for instance, the national police chief, interior minister, and Seoul mayor, all of whom had power to influence disaster management and traffic control – were spared investigation.

The Yoon administration merely tried to sweep Itaewon under the rug and move on. The police brutally repressed memorial rallies by the bereaved families. The city of Seoul has threatened to dismantle the memorial altar and doled out fines. Yoon, Kim, Park, and others accountable refused to attend the first anniversary memorial for Itaewon victims. A broadcaster received legal sanctions for hosting a guest who pointed out that “nobody assumes political responsibility” for Itaewon. There also have been allegations that the prosecutor’s office is deliberately obstructing investigation and indictment procedures. 

In November 2023, the United Nations Human Rights Committee duly noted that “a full-scale, independent investigation of the causes of the incident does not appear to have been carried out to determine the truth,” that “effective remedies have not been provided to victims,” and that “authorities have obstructed efforts to memorialize victims of the disaster, including by using excessive force at memorial rallies and investigating human rights activists who participate in such rallies.”

The Itaewon disaster has been, at best, a nuisance to the Yoon administration, a painful reflection and reminder of its incompetence and apathy. It has spared no effort to cocoon the top brass and impose collective amnesia on what happened. That the former Yongsan police chief was rather concerned about heavy traffic around the presidential residence in his car ride to the Itaewon disaster encapsulates the government’s sole focus: the president and his people.

Had it not been for the April general elections that reprimanded the government, the PPP and Yoon wouldn’t have backed down for any Itaewon special bill. This is why the new Itaewon special counsel matters – both for the sake of all those who perished in the absence of the government’s governing aptitude and accountability and for the future’s sake. May the next year – the Itaewon special counsel’s mandate – prove fruitful and palliative.