South Korea crowd disaster causes no change at the top | ET REALITY


From the beginning, with pain still raw and agonizing questions unanswered, the South Korean government distanced itself from the disaster that unfolded last year during a Halloween weekend in Seoul.

Nearly 160 revelers were crushed to death in a narrow alley in the Itaewon neighborhood after huge crowds gathered without police officers to control them, despite official warnings that the gathering would be unusually large after the end of pandemic restrictions.

Over the next few days, in a response that provoked scorn and ridicule among many South Koreans, the government insisted that it had no responsibility for public safety on the streets that night because Halloween festivities had not been formally organized. Instead, the government blamed local police and other officials for failing to deal with the emergency.

With another Halloween approaching, families say too little has been done to ensure such a catastrophe does not happen again.

While bar and nightclub owners in Itaewon have decided not to promote Halloween-themed events this year, they are hopeful that a sizable crowd will attend and boost confidence in the neighborhood, whose entertainment district has become a ghost town. in the months after the disaster. Authorities have banned Halloween festivities in Hongdae, another popular party and drinking neighborhood in Seoul, to help prevent congestion-related accidents. Hongdae was expected to draw larger crowds this year if people avoided Itaewon for Halloween.

City officials say they are taking extra safety precautions. Seoul has begun adding hundreds of high-resolution surveillance cameras and plans to use artificial intelligence technology to monitor crowds in Itaewon and other entertainment areas. Authorities say they plan to send up to 300 officials and police to Itaewon and keep a battalion of police on alert to intervene if streets become congested. There they will open an ad hoc control center to monitor the crowd. And they’ve changed the street tiles to make Itaewon’s sloping alleys less slippery.

But families of disaster victims say an underlying cause of the calamity remains unaddressed: a bureaucracy that fails to prioritize public safety and refuses to clarify its shortcomings, protecting politically appointed bosses in a deeply hierarchical culture.

“The entire government was united in trying to bring this case to light,” said Lee Jeong-min, who lost a daughter in Itaewon and is leading a campaign by the victims’ families to demand justice. “One thing we learned last year is that no security system matters unless there is a government with a sense of responsibility.”

In the wake of the deaths, President Yoon Suk Yeol’s government ordered officials to stop calling the crowd a “disaster” and its victims “victims,” ​​referring to them as an “accident” and “the dead.” And Yoon ignored demands from victims’ families to set an example by firing senior security officials and dismissed requests for a meeting and an apology.

A bill that would categorically stipulate that it is the government’s duty to prepare security measures when large groups of people are expected to gather without organizers has not yet been approved by the National Assembly.

Opposition lawmakers and relatives of victims are also pushing for a special law to open an independent investigation into the disaster, after Mr. Yoon’s government allowed the National Police Agency to investigate itself in the Itaewon case.

The families’ worst fears were confirmed when the police agency cleared its own top brass and those at the Ministry of the Interior and Security of any wrongdoing, while prosecutors charged 12 local police officers and other officials with charges including negligence in enforcing the law. official duty. No verdict has been returned because the trials have dragged on. Investigators asked prosecutors to charge Seoul’s police chief on similar charges, but prosecutors have yet to act.

The families say that high-level officials should be punished to make clear that they are responsible for large-scale disasters like the Itaewon crushing, and that structural changes to prevent such calamities will only be possible if the full truth of what is happening is exposed. happened.

On the night of October 29, panicked person after person called police and fire hotlines for hours, reporting that a dangerous crowd was developing in Itaewon’s narrow alley. Eventually, hundreds of people began to fall on top of each other as waves of revelers moved up and down the sloping strip of pavement, pushing each other to go in opposite directions.

As partygoers suffocated and died, hundreds of police deployed for other duties were less than a mile away. The nearest fire department first aid center was 200 meters away. The nearest police station was even closer: 100 meters away. But desperate calls from concerned passersby were ignored for hours.

After the disaster, Yoon said he felt “indescribable sadness” over the deaths of the 159 people, including 26 foreigners, most in their 20s and 30s. Her government promised to make the country safer.

But its lack of preparedness to handle emergencies was exposed again this year when floodwaters filled an underpass in July, killing 14 drivers and passengers, and when the World Scout Jamboree descended into chaos in August. In both cases, officials ignored warnings of danger.

In the Itaewon disaster, families asked whether the police had been too concerned about monitoring the area around Mr. Yoon’s office, which he had moved nearby. On the day of the rally, thousands of officers were deployed to monitor peaceful anti-Yoon protesters, a common occurrence in Seoul. Dozens of plainclothes police were in Itaewon, to carry out Mr. Yoon’s war on drugs, not to control the crowd.

The authorities’ claim that they lacked a mandate to regulate crowds because the festivities had no organizers was “an excuse,” said Ha Kag-Cheon, a disaster prevention expert in U1 University, a private school in central South Korea. “It is a basic duty of the authorities to make preparations and ensure safety when a large crowd is expected.”

After the disaster, bars and nightclubs closed as people avoided Itaewon, a neighborhood in the central Yongsan district where foreigners and locals have long gathered to enjoy the party atmosphere. Some owners moved their businesses to other locations in Seoul. Those who stayed organized street markets and independent band nights to help win back customers. The government provided cheap loans and 20 percent discount coupons to visitors.

Today, Itaewon clubs have recovered 60 to 70 percent of their business, said Yoo Tae-Hyuk, who runs a club near the disaster alley and heads an Itaewon shop owners association.

On a recent weekend afternoon, young nightclub workers dressed in black T-shirts attracted passersby. People drank beer around the tables on the terrace, enjoying a cool October afternoon. From a bar floated the Pharrell Williams song “Happy.”

“We have to change people’s perception of Itaewon as a scary place, a place they are afraid to visit,” said Hwang Soon-Jae, who runs jazz and rock ‘n’ roll bars.

The alley still stands as a monument to the tragedy. On a rust-colored metal wall at its entrance, hundreds of handwritten messages from residents and visitors around the world mourn the dead. “I hope we can take steps to prevent this type of tragedy from happening again,” one message read.

That wall, which investigators said a neighborhood hotel added to its side years ago without permission, made the alley even narrower. Hotel managers are on trial for violating building codes.

South Korea has been hit by a series of man-made disasters, including the collapse of a department store, sinking of a ferry and catastrophic fires. The country has laws and guidelines on disaster prevention, but there is not enough official commitment, experts said. Career bureaucrats, they added, are more concerned with satisfying the “mood” (or political needs) of their bosses than with ensuring public safety.

“Halloween in Itaewon had also attracted large crowds in previous years,” said Yoon Yong-Kyun, a disaster prevention expert at Semyung University. “If only one of the top bosses (Yongsan, Seoul police and city bosses or the president) had asked the officials if they had safety plans, the disaster would not have happened.”

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