What They Said is a weekly series on the quotes behind the headlines.
On October 29, there was a heartbreaking incident in Itaewon, where tens of thousands had flooded the streets to celebrate Halloween. A stampede occurred in a narrow alley, 40 meters long and less than four meters wide, and a total of 156 people are reported to have been killed, with the death toll expected to rise. South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol released a statement declaring a week of national mourning, from October 30 to November 5.
Social media was flooded with pictures and videos from the scene of tragedy, and Twitter Korea issued a statement:
We would like to inform you of Twitter’s Sensitive Media Policy. Please refer to this policy when tweeting images and videos of the Itaewon incident, and please report any problematic tweets you come across. And we would like to ask you to refrain from retweeting sensitive posts. May those who died in the incident rest in peace.
— Twitter Korea, October 30, 2022
It seems that the stampede could have been prevented, as multiple calls were made to the police regarding the possibility of a mass tragedy. An hour before the incident, an Afreeca TV broadcast jockey went to a police station and said that she had nearly been crushed to death and that the authorities should regulate the crowd. Unfortunately, their warnings went unheeded.
Comments and remarks followed from political circles too.
In response to a question about the government’s preparations, or the lack thereof, for the Halloween event, Lee Sang-min, the minister of the Interior and Safety, remarked:
“Today, you said, ‘A lot of people were expected to gather [in Itaewon],’ but from what we know, it wasn’t much different from other years. Of course, we are coming out of the Covid situation, but compared to previous years the size of the crowd wasn’t particularly worrisome. Right now, since we are prioritizing sorting out the incident, we’ll handle that first and then try to figure out what caused it. There are various stories about the cause of the incident.
So, our current assessment is that, unlike usual, it was not a problem that could have been prevented by stationing the police force or firefighters in advance.
Also, as you well know, there were riots and demonstrations in various parts of downtown Seoul yesterday, and therefore there were aspects of the police security forces being dispersed to these places.
— Lee Sang-min, Minister of the Interior and Safety, October 30, 2022
His remarks drew criticism from both the ruling and the opposition parties, including from the former National Intelligence Service director and veteran politician Park Jie-won:
“Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min says, ‘[The Itaewon disaster could not] have been prevented by stationing the police force…in advance.’
How can a minister in charge make such a nonsensical statement?
Now is the time to deal with the incident, mourn the dead, and comfort the bereaved.
Please don’t cause any trouble.
Minister Lee should shut his mouth and concentrate on handling the incident, and then prepare for the next steps.”
— Park Jie-won, former Director of the National Intelligence Service, October 30, 2022
Indeed, Lee’s comments turned out to be inaccurate. According to Herald Business, a total of 300,000 people were expected to come to Itaewon during the weekend, compared to 170,000 people in 2021. In addition, in previous years, measures had been taken to ensure people’s safety, such as making certain roads pedestrian-only for the weekend and preventing subway trains from stopping in Itaewon.
Former interim leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, Park Ji-hyun, spoke out against those who blamed the dead for going to Itaewon and asserted that the government must take steps to make the country a safer place:
“I offer my deepest condolences:
An unimaginable disaster has occurred. Most of the victims are said to be young men and women in their 20s. I don’t know what to say to comfort those who have suddenly lost their loved ones.
Most of the deceased must have just come of age and participated in the festival with excitement, and what happened is too horrific to bear.
This incident is clearly a man-made one. The government must be held accountable for failing to control the crowds, even as more people were expected to attend the festival than last year.
I have also seen people spreading videos of the incident and creating rumors online. Why are they blaming the victims? We should not blame the deceased for going to Itaewon; rather it was the absence of the government and politics—they didn’t ensure that everyone could enjoy the festival safely from wherever they were.
The Republic of Korea has become a society where the danger of death lurks everywhere. The terrible reality is that these risks can be repeated unless we make the entire society a structurally safe one.
Both the government and the ruling and opposition parties should do their best to handle the incident and come up with countermeasures. An inter-party summit is more urgent than ever. I ask the Democratic Party to propose first.
May the victims of the incident rest in peace. I also express my deepest condolences to the bereaved families who have lost their loved ones.”
— Park Ji-hyun, former interim leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, October 30, 2022
Meanwhile, Park Hee Young, the mayor of Yongsan-gu, where Itaewon is located, issued a statement via the Yongsan-gu website:
“Above all, we offer our deepest condolences to the victims of the Itaewon disaster and their families.
The Itaewon disaster occurred yesterday, October 29, around 10:15 PM.
Yongsan-gu will thoroughly analyze the cause of the incident and mobilize all administrative power to prevent such a disaster from recurring.
The police have identified the majority of the casualties and missing persons and contacted their families. Investigations are ongoing into four people who have not yet been identified.
Yongsan-gu and its affiliated and related organizations are providing all the convenience we can to the victims.
Yongsan-gu will have a mourning period for the rest of the year, until December 31, 2022. During this period, all non-essential events and group activities will be suspended.
Yongsan-gu, in cooperation with the central government and the Seoul Emergency Management Headquarters, has mobilized all administrative powers to quickly sort out the incident and take follow-up measures.
We will do our best to manage the safety of our facilities.
If you need help or have suggestions or information related to the Itaewon incident, please feel free to call us. We will do our best to help.”
— Park Hee Young, mayor of Yongsan-gu, October 30, 2022
Her statement was met with criticism, as it was made 18 hours after the incident and included no apology for the lack of safety measures. Moreover, calls to the hotline number posted alongside the statement went unanswered, according to the Hankyoreh.
The remark that seemed to resonate most with people came from an anonymous physical therapist, who posted on the Blind app:
“I pray that the deceased may rest in peace.
Because I’m of a different generation, I have never enjoyed Halloween; and due to different preferences, I don’t go to crowded places. Yet, even in my 40s, I still want to have fun, so it’s natural for those in their 20s to go out and have fun… .
Today must have been a day on which you wanted to create memories and enjoy your freedom. And, as always, you would have returned home to your families.
I am so saddened that your lives have been reduced to numbers and news, so I couldn’t go to sleep without saying a prayer for you somewhere like this. May those who died in an unexpected incident rest in peace.”
— Anonymous physical therapist in his 40s, October 29, 2022