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Same problems, same frustrations: Why Itaewon feels like deja vu

In the aftermath of the Sewol ferry sinking which killed 304 people, the government allocated a total of 1.5 trillion won ($1.06 billion) to set up a new emergency communication system.

That system was officially launched last year.

However, it barely worked as designed when 156 lives, most of them young people, died in a crowd crush during Halloween festivities in Itaewon on Oct. 29.

From a lack of appropriate safety measures before the disaster to the authorities’ botched response afterwards, many Koreans – particularly the young generation – cannot help but ask: Had this country not learned any lessons from the Sewol tragedy?

“What I say may sound harsh, but this ‘never again’ movement happened after the Sewol (tragedy). But even after 11 emergency calls, a tragedy happened again. I really hope the authorities take care and responsibility and keep the population safe,” a commenter wrote on The Korea Herald’s Instagram post related to safety measures being rolled out in the aftermath of the Itaewon disaster.

Citizens visit the memorial altar for the victims of Itaewon tragedy in Seoul Plaza on Thursday. (Yonhap)
Citizens visit the memorial altar for the victims of Itaewon tragedy in Seoul Plaza on Thursday. (Yonhap)

The 11 emergency calls refer to the ones made to local police on Oct.29 from people in Itaewon. The callers specifically warned of people being “crushed.” It was found that a total of 79 calls were made to the 112 emergency center between 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., while the majority of the police force remained tied up at political rallies close by.

The government has mandated safety inspections on festivals, crowded subways and other places. It has also said it would introduce CPR training for students and study scientific ways to enhance crowd management.

“The (Itaewon) tragedy was reminiscent of Sewol eight years ago. Back then we witnessed the sinking ship through media in real-time. This time, we witnessed people dying, again in real-time (via social media),” said an office worker based in Seoul who paid a visit to one of the memorial altars for the Itaewon victims.

The government explained that while the emergency communication system itself was fully operational, the officials themselves did not use the system which would have enabled quick communications with related organizations.

It was since revealed that while calls for help arrived as early as four hours before the deadly crowd crush, higher-ups in the police were not notified. The Seoul Metropolitan Police chief received the first report on what happened at 11:36 p.m., and the national police chief past midnight. The deadly incident occurred at 10:15 p.m.

A survey by local pollster Media Tomato on 1,072 adults showed that 73.1 percent of the respondents thought that the government was responsible for the Itaewon tragedy.

Daegu Mayor Hong Joon-pyo urged conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol to “be honest and admit (responsibility), or things may become like the Sewol incident,” on Thursday. President Yoon, while paying visits to the memorial altar of the victims every morning since Monday, has not said a word of apology.

The mayor was referring to mass anti-government protests that the then-Park Geun-hye administration faced following the Sewol tragedy. Park, who was later impeached for corruption and abuse of power, had suffered a massive dent in her job approval ratings for her poor handling of the tragedy.

As of now, Yoon, despite being one of the most unpopular first-year presidents in history, has not suffered a lot in polls. The most recent poll by Gallup Korea puts his approval rating at 29 percent, just a one percent drop compared to the week before.

A survey by the local pollster Media Tomato on 1,072 adults showed that 73.1 percent of the respondents thought the government was responsible for the Itaewon tragedy.

A candlelight vigil denouncing the government's response related to the Itaewon tragedy is being held in Gwangju on Thursday. (Yonhap)
A candlelight vigil denouncing the government's response related to the Itaewon tragedy is being held in Gwangju on Thursday. (Yonhap)

While there is no major anti-government campaign emerging from the Itaewon tragedy as of now, a candlelight vigil organized by the minor opposition Justice Party took place on Thursday in the progressive region of Gwangju at 6:34 p.m., to mark the time that the first emergency call related to the Itaewon tragedy was made.

A group which has been organizing anti-Yoon protests said Friday that it will hold a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of Itaewon in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on Saturday.



By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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