The many dreams of Sang-eun, cut short in Itaewon disaster

Posted on : 2022-12-08 17:13 KST Modified on : 2022-12-08 17:23 KST
Sang-eun’s bucket list included dating, traveling, and moving to the US – but her life was tragically cut short in the all too avoidable disaster on Oct. 29 in Itaewon
Lee Sang-eun, illustrated by Kwon Min-ji.
Lee Sang-eun, illustrated by Kwon Min-ji.

Sang-eun was born on June 29, 1997, and turned 25 this year. She had been a bright and pretty girl since childhood. She laughed often even as an adult, displaying her straight teeth whenever she took a picture. She had always been popular among friends. Sang-eun and her friends never got to go on a school trip during high school. Not after 2014, when Danwon High School students of her own age went on a school trip aboard the Sewol ferry and never came back.

There was one day when the ever-bubbly Sang-eun burst into tears.

“Dad, I… I passed the exam!”

As soon as she uttered those words, Sang-eun clutched her cell phone and sobbed uncontrollably. It was Aug. 23, 2022, the day she was notified that she had passed the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) exam.

Sang-eun did not feel attached to her college, which she enrolled at after retaking the Korean SAT despite it not having been her first-choice school. Sang-eun, who was more sensitive than she was familiar with numbers, chose marketing and filmmaking as her majors. A turning point in Sang-eun’s life came when she was a junior in college. She started to harbor a dream after her experience as an exchange student at a rural university in Missouri.

Embarking on the challenge to pass the AICPA

“Mom, I want to live in the US, whatever I do for a living.”

Kang Sun-ee (52), Sang-eun’s mother, works in finance and recommended her daughter consider taking the AICPA exam.

“Sang-eun, why don’t you study for the AICPA? It will be less difficult than the Korean CPA exam. Of course, the language may be a challenge, but wouldn’t that also be an opportunity?”

Returning to Korea in December 2019, Sang-eun started to prepare for the exam in earnest. From that point on, Sang-eun and her mother became the “three meal partners.” Sang-eun — returning home for mealtime after studying at a study café — and her mother, who worked from home due to COVID-19, would have breakfast, lunch, and dinner together every day. Every day when lunchtime rolled around, the two would happily discuss what they should eat that day. Once every week the entire family enjoyed a “Meat Day,” on which they would gather round to grill meat and crack open a few cold beers. On such days, Sang-eun would talk about what she wanted to do after the exam.

“When I get a job, I’m first going to date someone. I also can’t wait to get married. It would be nice to have a wedding in a cathedral. Oh, and I want to travel abroad with my friends.”

Sang-eun’s bucket list, which she had compiled over the two and a half years she had been preparing for the CPA exam, was filled to the brim.

She wanted to pass the exam before graduating from college. Passing it, however, was no easy task. For a few months, she had even given up, occupied with thoughts like, “Perhaps I don’t have the math gene,” or “Maybe English is the problem.” As her time prepping for the exam grew prolonged, she ended up graduating first. Then on Aug. 23, four days after she received her diploma, she received her test results.

After passing the exam, Sang-eun resumed dancing ballet, which she used to do as a child. She also joined a book club. On the weekends, she went on foodie travels with her parents to get Pyongyang cold noodles and spicy fish stew.

Sang-eun’s room remains untouched since her death. (courtesy of Sang-eun's family)
Sang-eun’s room remains untouched since her death. (courtesy of Sang-eun's family)
Bucket list: Getting a Job, dating, traveling

A few days before Halloween, Sang-eun had told her mother about her plans.

“I’m going to go out with my friends to Itaewon.”

Sang-eun liked Itaewon. She often hung out with her friends there. The online test site for the CPA exam was also near Itaewon, in the neighboring Hannam neighborhood. On testing days, she would get lunch with her mom in Itaewon. Halloween was a happy memory for Sang-eun, who lived in Hong Kong with her mother for about a year while she was in elementary school. She prepared an outfit she had worn when she was enjoying Halloween with her friends in the US during her time as an exchange student.

At dawn that day, Kang Sun-ee and her husband Lee Seong-hwan left home early. Their daughter was still asleep. The couple headed to Gangwon Province on a hiking trip with their acquaintances. They called Sang-eun in the morning.

“Did you have breakfast?”

“I’m going to fully enjoy myself in Itaewon, so don’t call me in the evening, mom.”

Hoping to not put a damper on her daughter’s fun, Kang didn’t call Sang-eun that evening like she would have on any other day. At 10 pm that night, the mother went to bed early but found it hard to fall asleep.

6 am the next morning, the mother turned on the television in her accommodation in Gangwon Province and screamed in shock.

“A crowd crush leading to hundreds of casualties in Itaewon, Yongsan District, Seoul…”

She frantically called Sang-eun. The name of the recipient surely read, “My Beloved Daughter,” but an unfamiliar voice picked up the phone. It was the Yongsan Police Station.

“Where’s my daughter?”

“We’ve only collected items from the scene, so I don’t know.”

Kang thought it was a relief. She must have dropped her cell phone somewhere and went home to sleep off the night out. Kang asked her neighbor to check if Sang-eun was at home. But the house was empty.

Sang-eun’s mother and father immediately headed to Seoul. They could not find Sang-eun, not at the Hannam Community Service Center, nor at Soonchunhyang University Hospital. Just as they decided to go home and look for their daughter after changing their clothes, the phone rang.

“This is the Dongdaemun Police Station. Is this the phone of Lee Sang-eun’s parents? Born on June 29, 1997?”

Their hearts sank.

“How can you be sure? How do you know it’s our Sang-eun?”

“We checked her fingerprints.”

Kang was dumbstruck. Her husband Lee took the phone instead. The police led him to a hospital in Dongdaemun District. Their daughter was lying there in the morgue.

How the funeral proceeded, Kang cannot quite recall. The police called a couple more times and asked the couple to contact the police if they needed any help. The Seoul metropolitan government visited the mortuary and talked about the funeral process. The health center asked them to call if they needed help with mental counseling.

Unable to remember the funeral

Kang could not believe her daughter had died, even as she sat in the mortuary. Anger surged within her as dozens of journalists requested for interviews. “This isn’t real. Sang-eun has not left yet…,” she thought.

Kang couldn’t accept that this was happening. It was not until her daughter’s body was cremated that her head was filled with a series of questions: Why had there been no action even after reports were made to the police starting from 6 pm? Why hadn’t the subway been blocked at Itaewon station? Why was there no apology from the president when any chief executive is supposed to bear responsibility when a problem arises in the workplace?

Recently, at a press conference for the bereaved families of the disaster hosted by Minbyun - Lawyers for a Democratic Society, Sang-eun’s father read a letter to his only child.

“Goodbye, Sang-eun. Don’t look back. Throw away all the pain and sadness in this world and travel well. Thank you for having been my daughter. I love you, I love you, I love you.”

But the couple has not released her from their parental hearts. They have not yet touched Sang-eun’s bedroom. By her bedside there still lies a book that Sang-eun had been reading. On one side of the wall, there hang 13 notes with her goals written down, including “945 on the TOEIC,” and photos taken with her friends.

She had been achieving her goals one by one, but at the time of her death was just short of No. 13: “getting a job.”

The bucket list of Sang-eun, who had wished to do so much beyond the four walls of her room, also came to an end on Oct. 29 in Itaewon.

A handwritten letter to Sang-eun from her father and mother. In it, they write, “Two days after we said goodbye to you, you got a text message on your cell phone with good news from the company you were so hoping to work at, but now you can’t go.”
A handwritten letter to Sang-eun from her father and mother. In it, they write, “Two days after we said goodbye to you, you got a text message on your cell phone with good news from the company you were so hoping to work at, but now you can’t go.”


A handwritten letter to Sang-eun from her father and mother.
A handwritten letter to Sang-eun from her father and mother.
A handwritten letter to Sang-eun from her father and mother.
A handwritten letter to Sang-eun from her father and mother.

By Ryu Seok-woo, Hankyoreh21 staff writer

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