Melanie Do ‘23, Entertainment Editor
The narrow alleyways of Itaewon—the lively nightlife district of Seoul, South Korea—are often bustling with partygoers and tourists every weekend, but now it is the location of one of the nation’s worst tragedies since 2014, when the Sewol ferry sank, killing over 300 people.
On Oct. 29, an estimated 100,000 people flocked into the area in order to celebrate South Korea’s first unrestricted Halloween festivities following the COVID-19 pandemic. There was pent-up eagerness to participate in this year’s event as celebrations with large gatherings had been restricted by limitations on crowd sizes and mask mandates for the past few years. Both Seoul residents and visitors from around the world were ready to go all out as hotels and ticketed events in and around the neighborhood were fully booked well in advance. A large crowd was to be expected on this Saturday night.
As it grew later into the night, hysteria began to ensue as the crowd continued to multiply, trapping people in the tight alley. Some witnesses stated that there was very little—if any—crowd control or authority presence before the mass of people turned fatal. The photo and video evidence posted on social media that night show how close people were packed together, standing shoulder to shoulder and back to chest in the narrow street no more than 13 feet wide. Many survivors recalled how difficult it was to breathe and move within the crowd. One eyewitness said it took some time for people to realize that something was wrong because panicked screams were drowned out by the music blaring from nearby clubs and bars.
Authorities rushed into the district at around 10 p.m. after receiving a string of emergency calls, but the volume of people made it difficult to reach those who needed immediate help. Following the crush, videos were posted of people performing chest compressions on other partygoers lying on the ground, unmoving, as they waited for medical assistance. As the disaster unfolded, more than 1,700 emergency response forces were dispatched, including more than 500 firefighters, 1,100 police officials and about 70 government workers.
As of Nov. 2, the number of deaths has climbed to 156 with the casualties being mostly young people in their teens and early 20s. Among these deaths, at least 26 were foreign nationals from countries in North America, Europe and other parts of Asia, according to authorities. Moreover, South Korea’s Interior and Safety Ministry reported that a total of 101 women and 55 men were killed, and South Korea’s Ministry of Education stated that six school students were among the victims, including one in middle school. Three teachers also died.
The ministry said the number of those injured has risen to 149 with around 37 of the 149 currently in critical condition. Furthermore, the Seoul city government has received more than 4,000 missing people reports since that night. That number could potentially include multiple reports for the same individual, or reports filed on Saturday night for people who have since been found. Police are not currently initiating an active search for these people as they believe no one went missing from the scene—rather, they have been using the reports to help identify those who passed away.
The day following the horrible turn of events, Lee Sang Min, Minister of the Interior and Safety, said that “a considerable number” of police and security personnel had been tasked with potential protests happening in another part of Seoul on the Saturday of the Halloween festivities. Meanwhile in Itaewon, only a “normal” level of security forces had been deployed. The National Police Agency released a statement on Oct. 31 saying a total of 137 police officers were at the party district—but they were assigned with curbing crimes, not crowd control.
Public safety professionals stress that the gathering’s unconstrained nature cannot be an excuse for inaction. Moon Hyeon Cheol of Soongsil University’s Department of Police Science said the local authorities “could have blocked car traffic off the street near the site during this past weekend or had the subway pass Itaewon station without stopping.”
Joo Hye Sun, director of the Korea Trauma Research and Education Institute, told The Washington Post, “This tragedy unfolded in an area where people feel safe, expect to have fun and otherwise don’t expect to experience anything dangerous. It can be very shocking to so many people.” With that being said, there is a general feeling among the Korean public that the country’s institutions and leaders have failed to protect its most vulnerable citizens: the youth. Many people have taken to social media to express their frustration with the police’s inadequate emergency response despite being aware of the large turn-up that night. Korean comments under YouTube videos covering the tragedy write, “The politicians think they just need to hold onto their power, and don’t need to take any responsibility. This attitude makes me sick.” Another individual said, “As a Korean citizen in his 20s, I really feel that my country won’t protect me. I am so depressed.”
The country’s President, Yoon Suk Yeol has officially declared a national state of mourning in remembrance of the victims until Nov. 5. Local businesses in Itaewon have shut down for the week following the tragedy, and the government has begun to offer psychological support to families, witnesses, and survivors.
Yoon has promised to administer new measures in order to prevent similar circumstances from happening in the future, saying the government would “conduct emergency inspections not only for Halloween events but also for local festivals and thoroughly manage them so they are conducted in an orderly and safe manner.”