Korea: Shame on failure in Halloween tragedy

Seoul, South Korea –

When Kim Kap Soo watched live broadcasts of the horrifying Halloween party that killed more than 150 people in Seoul last weekend, he was shocked and saddened – but also embarrassed to realize that this wasn’t was the first time he saw Korea suffer a terrible disaster due to official incompetence and safety failures.

“My heart hurts,” said Kim, 73, a retired environmental engineering researcher. “The public insensitivity to safety is too serious. We should always be careful about things, but we don’t, and I think that’s the biggest problem.”

Saturday’s crowd in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district, sparked a wave of public sympathy for the dead, mostly in their 20s and 30s, and demanded accountability. responsibility for the tragedy. But many also share feelings of shame and anger that their country, an economic and cultural power that has risen from war, poverty and dictatorship, still ignores security issues. rules and regulations.

Similar mass collisions have occurred in other developed countries in recent years, but the death toll there is far less than in Itaewon, where 156 people died and 187 were injured.

There are growing questions here about why South Korea hasn’t learned from its lessons since the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking, which killed 304 people – mostly teenagers on a school trip. That disaster also spurred countries that were looking for the country’s failure to enforce safety and management rules.

Park You Nam, 60, who runs a jewelry store in Seoul, said: “When it comes to public safety, I think we are not an advanced country, although we may have developed economic development”. “I really feel sorry and guilty for those young victims because we all failed to protect them.”

From K-pop superstars BTS and Netflix’s horror drama “Squid Game” to Samsung-made smartphones and Hyundai cars, Korea’s recent cultural and economic achievements are remarkable. attention. But there’s a dark side to its dramatic rise from the extreme poverty of the 1950s and ’60s: Critics argue that basic safety practices, social safety nets, and language minority speech has been mostly ignored.

These critics say not much has changed since the ferry sinking, citing a series of smaller fatal incidents such as fires and boat accidents.

On Tuesday, President Yoon Suk Yeol acknowledged that South Korea lacked studies on crowd management and ordered officials to develop effective crowd control methods based on high-tech resources such as Unmanned aircraft. Police also said they did not have guidelines for dealing with large crowds at events without official organizers, like the Halloween festival in Itaewon.

Park Sangin, a professor at Seoul National University, said Itaewon’s demise shows that South Koreans have not done much to improve systems and policies to prevent similar man-made disasters. like a ferry sinking. Instead, he said, Koreans focus on finding, criticizing and punishing whoever is responsible every time an incident occurs.

“For a country that has experienced many safety-related incidents, diverse studies and countermeasures should be in place to prevent their recurrence, and that is the responsibility of government officials. government and politicians,” Park said. “But they didn’t, and I think it’s more important to criticize them for things to change.”

Exactly what caused Saturday’s love affair is still under investigation. But it happened as more than 100,000 partygoers dressed in Halloween costumes and others packed the alleys of Itaewon. Police dispatched just 137 officers to the neighborhood, most of them dealing with possible crimes like drug use, not crowd control. Police also admitted on Tuesday they had received about a dozen emergency calls from residents about impending crowds but were not dealing with them effectively.

The disaster has left many Koreans feeling traumatized.

Witnesses said people fell on each other like dominoes, screaming, having severe breathing difficulties and passing out while being crammed in a narrow, steep alley. Television footage showed people frantically giving CPR to victims lying motionless near a row of corpses covered by blue blankets.

“The first time I saw such things on TV, I thought they were happening overseas, not here,” said Kim Suk Hee, 40, a real estate agent. “I was shocked to find out it was Itaewon, because I was actually planning to go there with my family on Halloween the next day. I’m still traumatized about what happened.”

Jang Seung-Jin, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, said Itaewon’s fondness proved once again that Korea still has a long way to go to become an advanced country in every way. He said what matters now is how the country will deal with the consequences.

Since the disaster, several top officials have been heavily criticized for comments seen as attempts to shirk government responsibility for squashed behavior or even jokes about it.

A public survey conducted after the disaster found President Yoon’s approval rate at around 30%, a very low rate when he took office six months ago.

Choi Jin, director of the Seoul-based Presidential Leadership Institute, said his future popularity may depend on how he handles the Itaewon tragedy.

At a funeral center in Seoul, Vietnam veteran Park Young-kee, 82, wore white flowers and bowed in memory of the dead, including a distant relative who is a high school student. .

“This kind of disaster didn’t happen when I was a kid. I can’t describe how I feel,” Park said. “This happened because we were not an advanced country. If we were really an advanced country, could it have happened?”

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