People who lost loved ones in the 2022 Halloween crowd crush in Itaewon lie prostrate on the road as they make their way from the site of the disaster that claimed the lives of their family members to the presidential office in Yongsan, 1.5 kilometers away, on Jan. 29 to call for the enactment of a special act that would carry out a fact-finding investigation into the disaster. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)
Park Yeong-su lost her 29-year-old son Lee Nam-hun in the Itaewon crowd crush in October 2022. On Monday, she folded her hands together and then lay prostrate, with her forehead, knees and elbows all on the ground, outside Exit 1 of Itaewon Station. Then standing, the 57-year-old woman took three steps and prostrated herself once more, crawling and crawling, and crawling like that along the road to the presidential office in Yongsan, a distance of more than a kilometer.
“It seems like I can feel, in my own body, the chill those young people must have felt that cold night.”
While Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol was expected to — and ultimately did — veto the bill on uncovering the truth, preventing recurrence and protecting the rights of those who lost their lives in the tragedy that claimed 159 lives in a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, Park and the other bereaved family members still hope with all their heart that the bill will take effect.
To call for the enactment of the special bill, over 30 bereaved family members joined members of Protestant, Buddhist, Won Buddhist, and Catholic beliefs in a Buddhist procession of prostration. Around 45 people in total took part in the solemn march.
Ahead of the procession, police announced that the street in front of the presidential office was “off limits” to any sort of political protest, as it was classified as a “main road.” The courts, however, declared such prohibition an “excessive restriction of the right to assembly,” and approved the march. The procession marked the first public protest to be held directly at the gate into the presidential office, rather than across the street.
Dressed in gray jumpsuits and equipped with knee pads, the bereaved family members proceeded to kneel down and drop into a full bow every few steps over and over. After only 10 minutes, some were visibly fatigued and out of breath, their masks shifting from the huffing and puffing and sweat pouring out of their suits.
Where the marchers lay prostrate on the ground, sweat marks remained. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)
Yu Hyeong-woo, 54, who lost his daughter Yu Yeon-ju in the disaster, wiped the tears from his face as he continued the backbreaking march. The sunlight on his face magnified the tears and sweat on his face. An additional 21 family members and activists offered their bows from the sidelines of the parade while marching toward the presidential office.
The procession lasted for around two hours. It was a last-ditch response to a situation in which the president was widely expected to reject the bill.
The ruling People Power Party officially proposed that the president veto the bill on Jan. 18. Bereaved family members shaved their heads in protest on Jan. 18. They engaged in a march where they bowed for every three steps in the freezing cold on Jan. 22. They held a protest calling for the bill to be passed on Jan. 27. Finally, on Sunday, Jan. 28, they took to the streets to prostrate and march once more, desperately calling on the president to pass the bill.
A presidential veto can only be overturned if over two-thirds of the National Assembly votes to do so. With the ruling party in opposition to the bill, however, that doesn’t seem likely to happen.
Before setting off on their march, the family members held a press conference.
“The only policy that will help ease the pain of people who lost their children in the Itaewon tragedy is an expedited approval of the bill that permits a thorough investigation into what happened that night, so that such a tragedy never happens again,” the families said during the press conference.
“We don’t want anything other than the truth. Pass the special bill now!” the family members demanded.
Families who lost loved ones in the Oct. 29, 2022, crowd crush in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood call on the president to pass the special act that would authorize an investigation into the circumstances that led to the disaster. Their signs read: “The one who vetoes the Oct. 29 Itaewon disaster special act is the culprit!” (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)
Lee Jeong-min, 62, who lost his daughter Lee Ju-yeong, heads up the 10.29 Itaewon Disaster Bereaved Families group.
“I beg of you,” Lee pleaded to President Yoon Suk-yeol. “Please don’t make the wrong decision.”
When reports suggested that the presidential office was preparing to soften the blowback from the veto by announcing support measures, the bereaved family members made their voices louder.
“Our kids begged for someone to come save them. There were 96 distress calls made to the police, yet authorities doctored that number to 11. When they were begging for their lives, where was their country?” said Kim Hwa-suk, 63, who lost her son Kim Hyeon-su in Itaewon.
“They talk about us like we’re shaving our heads and marching in the streets to get some kind of compensation. It’s heartbreaking,” Kim said.
“If the president met with the bereaved family members face-to-face just once, he wouldn’t veto the bill,” said Yu. “Instead, however, he continues to work the press. It makes me exhausted and enraged.”
By Shim Wu-sam, staff reporter; Kim Yeong-won, staff reporter
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