Foreign press highlight Korean government’s blame-shifting over Itaewon tragedy

Posted on : 2022-11-02 16:02 KST Modified on : 2022-11-02 16:02 KST
Pieces in news sources across the world note growing anger amid an apparent lack of accountability on the part of government agencies for the tragedy
Still from New York Times coverage of the deadly crowd crush in Itaewon
Still from New York Times coverage of the deadly crowd crush in Itaewon

Four days have passed since the deadly disaster in Itaewon and foreign media have successively claimed that the Korean government bears responsibility for the accident. While reporting cautiously about the incident that cost the lives of over 150 victims, the foreign press has pointed out that this was a “man-made” disaster that could have been avoided had the authorities prepared in advance.

The US New York Times on Monday (local time) quoted experts as saying, the tragedy was “absolutely avoidable.”

“[N]o government agency seemed prepared to take full responsibility for the scores of people who were killed on one of the busiest nights of the year in Itaewon.”

The newspaper cited the Korean government’s failure to respond to security threats and listed several cases supporting this claim.

Specifically, the writer pointed out, “When the K-pop group BTS staged a show in South Korea that drew a crowd of 55,000, the police were ready, assigning 1,300 officers to keep people safe. And when political protests are held, however modest in size, the country’s police are famous for laying careful plans to make sure crowds do not get out of control.”

“But that did not happen Saturday night,” it continued.

“The police had assigned just 137 officers — and most of those were ordered not to direct the throngs of people but to look out for crimes like sexual harassment, theft and drug use. By the next morning, the human cost of those decisions was clear: More than 150 people died.””

The New York Times further criticized the Korean government’s blame-shifting attitude.

“While government officials have been mostly tight-lipped about what went wrong in Itaewon on Saturday evening [. . .] many are already placing blame for one of the worst peacetime disasters in South Korea’s history on the failure to police the crowd.”

AFP News also questioned the government’s lack of preparedness, saying, “Even for the Halloween event – a public gathering with no tickets – authorities could have been actively managing the situation to prevent overcrowding.”

“So far, no one has been held accountable, even as public anger flares at the government and police for their apparent lack of oversight,” it added.

The news source claimed that Korea’s top-ranking officials have been evading questions regarding responsibility by simply saying that the current priority is to deal with the aftermath of the accident.

The Guardian in the UK also reported Monday, “Calls for accountability have grown in the press and online after witnesses reported seeing a relatively small number of police on the streets in relation to the size of the crowds.”

According to the Guardian, Yongsan District had set out plans to manage the host-less Halloween event only to control the spread of COVID-19, safety at bars and restaurants, public littering, and drugs, without any measures to control large crowds that were expected to gather in the area.

A Foreign Ministry official of Iran, which lost five of its citizens, directly mentioned the Korean government’s responsibility for the accident.

Nasser Kanaani, a spokesperson for the reign ministry of Iran, said on Oct. 31 during a press brief that “the Korean government should have managed the event if it knew how to do so.”

Japanese press also pointed out that there was a problem with the police’s control of security.

A headline article on the front page of the Yomiuri Shimbun on Tuesday said, “The Korean government practically admitted that there were insufficiencies in crowd control when the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters said in a press conference the previous day that the police were focused on preventing and detecting illegal activities, such as drugs.”

Meanwhile, in an editorial published the same day, the Asahi Shimbun said, “Given that many people were expected to flock into that area, there are many questions to be answered, such as whether security was sufficient.”

“Just as it was after the Sewol ferry disaster, there has once again risen the need to raise awareness of social safety by expanding a self-criticizing attitude for failing to protect the lives of so many promising youths.”

By Kim Mi-hyang, staff reporter

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