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Halloween Crowd Surge in South Korea and its Aftermath

Staff writer Hokyung Jung discusses the Halloween crowd surge in South Korea and the effectiveness of the government’s response to it. 

What happened? 

On October 29, even from early evening, major crowds began to form around Itaewon – the Mecca of clubbing and drinking culture in Seoul, South Korea. Celebrating Halloween, the number of people gathered in this compact and notoriously hilly area is reported to be 100,000; eyes lit up as Covid-19 restrictions that persisted over two years have finally been lifted. As the night progressed, the district became uncontrollable and was flooding with people. Witnesses described being unable to breathe or move, and it was in an alleyway no more than 4 metres wide that bodies began to be trapped and people fell like dominos. At least 156 people are known to have died, of whom 98 were women and 26 foreign nationals. 80% of the victims were in their twenties, including teachers and South Korean soldiers.

A governmental failure?

Since Itaewon is a known area for its geography and culture, controversies have emerged on how the incident could have easily been avoided. The government expected a surge of people, especially following the end of the pandemic, so what went wrong? Survivors have reported that they had seen few or no police officers in the area before the situation deteriorated. Oh Seung-jin, Director of the Violent Crime Investigation Division at the National Police Agency admitted that “currently there is no separate preparation manual for such a situation where there is no organiser and a gathering of a crowd is expected,” pointing the liability towards the absence of guidelines for the authorities’ slow responses. To many Koreans, this was an inadequate justification as it was the lack of police employment, planning, and emergency services that intensified the disaster. Following the sinking of MV Sewol 2014, South Korea’s biggest maritime tragedy subsequent to passive governmental reaction, the government could have employed stricter regulations to improve public safety standards. Its failure received large public scrutiny as the incident felt like a mere repeat of the ferry disaster.

Moving forward

It is difficult to put all accountability on the government, however, as reports reveal multiple testimonies suggesting that many drunk people started pushing each other, some even “as a joke.” With further police investigation planned to proceed in the upcoming days, if people are found to be pushing intentionally, contributing towards injuries and even deaths, the government has stated that there will be consequent legal punishments. As of now, the police are obtaining relevant CCTVs and investigating various social media contents to determine the origins of the incident, in attempts to find and charge individuals. Halloween – being both a voluntary and civic festivity, celebrated primarily on the streets – has no clear host; taking actions seem ambitious. Similar activities will continue to occur and instead of trying to terminate these events, the sensible answer moving forward is to establish correct safety measures and create specific guidelines in relation to crowd control.

Media response 

There is a lot of backlash in the media condemning those who participated in the festival. Comments have been targeting the victims, stating that no one forced them to participate in this culture – especially because Halloween is a foreign festivity that was never part of Korean traditions. Furthermore, proceeding the incident, the government has announced ‘The Period of Mourning,’ which will last from October 30 to November 5, as well as a grant of support fund to the victim’s families. Many members of the public have opposed these measures as “The Period of Mourning” has resulted in institutions and companies ceasing all major events, putting a halt to sales. Along with the support fund, which has now reached approximately £9,225, reported to be generated primarily by national tax, the citizens and the economy will inevitably forfeit. Petitions are already emerging, objecting against the compensations. On the other hand, the government would nonetheless have faced backlash had it did not introduced any reparations. Whilst the Itaewon stampede was generally viewed as a devastating happening, it surely was perceived differently by the different groups. There does not seem to be a correct response.

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