Korea sees nationwide outpouring of grief in wake of Itaewon tragedy

Posted on : 2022-11-01 15:01 KST Modified on : 2022-11-01 15:01 KST
Many have paid their respects to victims of the mass casualty incident at memorial altars set up in cities across the country
People place flowers on an altar for the victims of the Itaewon crowd crush located in Seoul Plaza on Oct. 31. (Yonhap)
People place flowers on an altar for the victims of the Itaewon crowd crush located in Seoul Plaza on Oct. 31. (Yonhap)

The response was one of unanimity and solemnity. Festivals were canceled, and gatherings postponed. Members of the public visited memorial sites in respectful dress, their heads wordlessly lowered.

Such was the end of October, the cruelest month in Korea’s 21st century.

Two days after the deadly crowd crush Saturday in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood, people nationwide expressed their condolences on Monday. As they processed the horrific deaths of young people in the prime of their lives, the shock and anguish of the first day gave way to feelings of mourning and resolve.

“I’ve been crying all day these last few days. I went out because I couldn’t get a handle on anything,” explained a 36-year-old surnamed Song who visited a joint memorial for Itaewon victims on Monday afternoon. Song had been in Itaewon on the day of the tragedy.

Yun Hyeon-jin, the 65-year-old owner of a nearby military supply rental shop, said he wanted to share a message with the young people whose lives were lost.

“You died in vain, without having the chance to enjoy your life here. I hope that you can enjoy yourself in comfort there in heaven,” he said.

Some members of the public went to visit the site of the tragedy. Since the evening before, the number of white chrysanthemums — symbols of mourning in Korea — and written messages left at the memorial site had nearly doubled.

Kim Gyeong-min, a 28-year-old company employee, said he was visiting before heading to his office in Seoul’s Gangnam area.

“The people who died were all around my age. They seem like they could have been my own friends or acquaintances. It’s heartbreaking,” he said.

“I hope they’ve gone to a better place,” he added. Tears were in his eyes throughout the short interview.

A 28-year-old visitor surnamed Kang said they had stopped by after working an overnight shift.

“As someone whose job involves saving people’s lives, it weighs on me that I wasn’t able to do anything. I felt like I needed to [pay respects] like this to ease the sense of guilt a little,” they explained. A firefighter in Yongsan District, Kang was off duty the evening of the tragedy and was not part of the rescue effort.

Two people take a moment of silence at a memorial altar for victims of the Itaewon crowd crush set up by a local organization in Gwangju on Oct. 31. (Kim Yong-hee/The Hankyoreh)
Two people take a moment of silence at a memorial altar for victims of the Itaewon crowd crush set up by a local organization in Gwangju on Oct. 31. (Kim Yong-hee/The Hankyoreh)

People also went to pay respects at other memorials around Korea, including ones in Gwangju, Daejeon, and Jeju.

Kim Min-ji, 73, was visiting a citizens’ memorial situated in May 18 Democracy Square in Gwangju’s Dong District.

“I have a grandson in Seoul, and I was so shocked to learn that he was in a building in Itaewon on the day of the incident,” Kim said.

“My grandson was all right, but after seeing how other young people his age had died, I felt like I couldn’t just do nothing, so I waited for a memorial to be put up.”

Jeong Min-gi, who works with the Gwangju Young People’s Candlelight Association, said, “As people who still harbor the pain of May 1980, it really hit home for the citizens of Gwangju when we heard the news of the tragedy.”

“We deemed this tragedy to have been a societal disaster and set up a memorial on May 18 Democracy Square, which symbolizes community spirit,” Jeong explained.

Park Im-deuk, 53, was among the first visitors to a memorial put up in the city of Daejeon.

“I couldn’t even find the word “Hello’ this morning. This hits home for me as the parent of a child who’s a second-year middle school student,” Park said.

A few of the visitors had harsh words for the negligent behavior by police and administrative authorities.

Moon Seong-ho, a 60-year-old Taean resident visiting a joint memorial in Hongseong, South Chungcheong Province, said, “If the event was announced beforehand and there was the risk of a disaster, the government should have had safety measures in place.”

In a statement, the North Chungcheong Province chapter of the Civil Society Organizations Network in Korea said, “With this inability to take responsibility for the public’s safety, the state’s insensitivity to security has given rise to a regressive tragedy, and young people were smothered.”

“The government must determine responsibility for this situation appropriately and present special countermeasures,” it urged.

Many actively shared their condolences online. Naver and Kakao established online spaces for people to mourn the tragedy’s victims. Internet users are paying their respects on memorial sites, where they can choose to hang a commemorative ribbon or post messages expressing condolences for the dead.

Local governments have joined in the mourning by canceling or postponing festivals and events.

The city of Seongnam in Gyeonggi Province canceled a “Peony Five-Day Traditional Market Festival” that had been scheduled to take place Monday, with around 20,000 older people attending. Instead, it substituted the event with a free meal service.

Among the events that have been indefinitely postponed are the 17th Busan Fireworks Festival originally scheduled for Nov. 5, which was expected to draw over a million people; the 2022 Jeju Olle Walking Festival on Nov. 3–5; the Jeonju Nambu Traditional Market’s night market (Nov. 4–5); and the 22nd DMZ Walk for Peaceful Reunification in Cheorwon, Gangwon Province.

By Kim Yong-hee, Gwangju correspondent; Oh Yeon-seo, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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