Seoul, South Korea — When Kim Kap Soo watched live broadcasts of the harrowing Halloween party crash that killed more than 150 people in Seoul last weekend, there was shock and sadness — but also the embarrassed realization. that this was not the first time he had seen South Korea suffer a devastating disaster due to official incompetence and security lapses.
“My heart hurts a lot. We are among the 10 largest economies in the world, and I have absolutely no idea how this can happen in our country,” said Kim, 73, a retired environmental engineering researcher. “Our public safety insensitivity is too severe. We always have to be careful of everything, but we don’t, and I think that’s the biggest problem.
Saturday’s crowd crush in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district, sparked an outpouring of public sympathy for the dead, mostly in their 20s and 30s, and demands of responsibility for the tragedy. But many also share a strong sense of embarrassment and anger that their country, a cultural and economic powerhouse born out of war, poverty and dictatorships, still ignores safety and regulatory issues.
Similar crowd crushes have occurred in other developed countries in recent years, but the death toll there was much lower than in Itaewon, where 156 people died and 187 were injured.
There are growing questions about why South Korea hasn’t learned its lessons since the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, which killed 304 people, mostly teenagers, on a school trip. This disaster also sparked national soul-searching over the country’s failure to enforce safety and regulatory rules.
“As far as public safety is concerned, I think we are not an advanced nation at all, although we may have grown economically,” said Park You Nam, 60, who runs a jewelry store in Seoul. “I feel very sorry and guilty for these young victims because we failed to protect them.”
From K-pop superstars BTS and Netflix’s hit drama “Squid Game” to Samsung-made smartphones and Hyundai cars, South Korea’s recent cultural and economic achievements have been remarkable. But there is a dark side to its meteoric rise from the extreme poverty of the 1950s and 1960s: Critics say basic security practices, social safety nets and minority voices have been largely ignored.
Little has changed since the sinking of the ferry, these critics say, citing a series of smaller fatal incidents such as fires and boating accidents.
On Tuesday, President Yoon Suk Yeol acknowledged South Korea’s lack of crowd management studies and ordered officials to formulate effective crowd control methods based on high-tech resources such as drones. Police also said they had no guidelines for dealing with crowds at events that do not have official organizers, such as Halloween festivities in Itaewon.
Park Sangin, a professor at Seoul National University, said the Itaewon crash showed the South Koreans had done little to improve systems and policies to prevent disasters from occurring. human similar as the sinking of the ferry. He said the South Koreans have instead focused on finding, criticizing and punishing anyone responsible whenever an incident occurs.
“For a country that has had many security-related incidents, there should have been various studies and countermeasures to prevent their recurrence and that is the responsibility of government officials and politicians,” Park said. “But they didn’t, and I think it’s more important to criticize them to change things.”
What exactly caused Saturday’s crush is still under investigation. But it happened when more than 100,000 revelers dressed in Halloween costumes and more filled the aisles of Itaewon. The police only dispatched 137 officers to the area, mostly to deal with possible crimes such as drug use, not crowd control. Police also acknowledged on Tuesday that they had received a dozen emergency calls from citizens about the imminent influx of crowds, but did not deal with them effectively.
The disaster left many South Koreans with a sense of trauma.
Witnesses said people were falling on top of each other like dominoes, screaming, suffering severe breathing difficulties and losing consciousness as they were crowded into a narrow, sloping alley. Television footage showed people frantically giving CPR to victims lying motionless near a row of dead bodies covered in blue blankets.
“When I first saw such things on TV, I thought they were happening in a foreign country, not here,” said Kim Suk Hee, 40, a real estate agent. “I was so stunned to learn that it was Itaewon, because I actually planned to go there with my family for Halloween the next day. I’m still traumatized by what happened.
Jang Seung-Jin, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, said Itaewon’s crush once again proves that South Korea still has a long way to go to become an advanced country in all respects. He said what is important now is how the country will deal with the consequences.
Since the disaster, some senior officials have been harshly criticized for comments seen as an attempt to avoid government responsibility for the thunderbolt or even a joke about it.
A public survey conducted after the disaster shows that President Yoon’s approval rating is around 30 percent, a very low rating given that he took office only six months ago.
His future popularity may depend on how he handles the Itaewon tragedy, said Choi Jin, director of the Seoul-based Presidential Leadership Institute.
At a Seoul mourning center, Vietnam War veteran Park Young-kee, 82, laid white flowers and bowed to the memory of the dead, including a distant relative who was a high school student.
“This kind of disaster didn’t happen when I was young. I can’t describe how I feel,” Park said. “It happened because we are not an advanced country. If we are really an advanced country, could this have happened? »