The 10.29 Halloween Crowd Crush & State Responsibility: Dynamics of Safety Discourse in South Korea
One hundred and fifty-eight young people lost their lives in Seoul, South Korea, during Halloween weekend 2022, in an incident that has since come to be known as the Itaewon Crowd Crush or the 10.29 Disaster. The fact that most of the deaths and injuries were caused in just one or two hours, especially on one of the most well-known streets in Seoul, makes it even more difficult to understand why and how this disaster happened. Considering the number of people who showed up in Itaewon in previous years, more than 10,000 people were expected to show up as a result, preventive measures for COVID infections or street cleanliness had been undertaken by the district office beforehand (Choi, 2022). However, official police dispatch orders were issued only 85 minutes after the stampede began (Song, 2022). This made it almost impossible for the police and paramedics to save the victims in time.
Nevertheless, the Korean government’s response and post-treatment of the disaster seemed to be lacking necessary tact. In the aftermath of the disaster, the presidential office declared the following week to be a “period of national mourning”. Government officials were required to postpone all events, national flags were flown at half-mast, and district offices installed memorial altars. But following the week of ‘official national mourning’, the government gradually shied away from taking further responsibility for the disaster. Instead, the government kept to its original stance, claiming that, as reflected in the words of Interior Minister Lee Sang-min, the tragedy was “not a problem that could have been solved by deploying police or firefighters in advance” (Seo, 2022). While videos of previous Halloween events held at Itaewon had shown that police officers were present on the exact same street to prevent any safety accidents, nobody provided a clear explanation on why only 137 police officers were present this year (Song, 2022). Instead, most of the preventive safety measures were known to be focused on preventing individual crimes, mostly expected to be provoked by drugs (Na & Kim, 2022).
The words of the victims’ families that gathered for a press conference a month after the tragedy show what the Korean civil society demands (Lee, 2022). “The Itaewon Disaster is an indirect murder caused by a lack of safety awareness. On October 29th, 10:15 pm, no state or government was present [emphasis added] at the deadly roads of Itaewon” (Victim Song Eun-ji’s father, Kim & Kim, 2022). In other words, the occurrence of the 10.29 Disaster and its aftermath are starting to demonstrate how discourse in Korean society has recently started to raise a fundamental question: What is the role of the state, especially regarding citizens’ safety?
Safety Discourses in Modern South Korea
It is not the first time that South Korean citizens have been driven to question the role of the state in terms of safety measures. A series of disasters, such as the Seongsu Bridge Collapse (1994), the Sampoong Department Store Collapse (1995), and the Sewol Ferry Tragedy (2014), all tragically occurring due to the lack of institutionalised safety awareness, would repeatedly galvanise and rally civil society around the same question. The struggle of the citizens demanding state responsibility to protect people’s everyday safety has been one of the core driving forces in recent Korean political discourse. Dynamic discussions took place to let citizens participate in structural decision-making processes aiming to implement suitable safety measures.
The dynamics of safety discourses in Korea can also be interpreted as a product of a developmentalist state-building process (Ha, 2014). During the last 50-60 years, a strong state government implemented centralised policies that mainly targeted rapid economic growth and modernization in South Korea. State development was considered the sole most important issue, which in turn led to a deprioritization of safety measures for the citizens. It was only in the early 21st century when civil society organisations finally started raising questions about state responsibility on the issue of safety, and several grassroots movements after the Sewol Ferry Tragedy proved that dynamic political discussions developed around safety discourses. People felt threatened by the lack of structural measures ensuring everyday safety. As a result, political discourses on the issue of safety in South Korea intensified , and the term ‘safety discourse (안전 담론)’ became an important topic (Ha, 2014). New safety laws were enacted, civil society demanded structural accountability, and an increasing number of people discussed the politics of safety.
The Sewol Ferry Tragedy (2014), which caused the death of 306 people, was a particular tipping point for civil society: criticisms accumulated and reached a boiling point, upon which demands were made regarding the state government’s responsibility to protect the citizens’ everyday safety. Although the ferry started sinking due to a sudden veer, the Korean government was unable to avoid criticism when it became known that communication between the maritime police, the shipping company, and the central government had been severely delayed and mishandled (Ha, 2014). Later, it was revealed that the government had not been aware of the poor safety measures on passenger ships and had rather tried to conceal the lack of systematic decision-making processes during the ensuing period of relief work (Hong, 2016).
As a result, discourse around safety in South Korea is inevitably entangled with the issue of the state’s fundamental responsibility to ensure, protect, and promote awareness of everyday safety measures. Most of the structural changes that legislated new safety laws were initiated by bottom-up organisations, such as “Sewol Ferry Record-Keeping Committee of the Citizens” (세월호 시민기록위원회), which criticised poor and outdated safety measures implemented by the government (Hong, 2016). Such grassroots movements were not seen as a temporary fad, but rather the expression of long-accumulated feelings of fear and distrust experienced by citizens after witnessing consecutive disasters (Kim, 2019). Political debates about everyday safety have matured and expanded to include demands for workplace safety, such as the death of a nineteen-year-old worker who died while fixing the screen doors of Guui metro station (2016), or worker Kim Yong-Gyun who was found dead at the Taean Thermoelectric Power Station during his night shift (2019). Consequently, amendments were made to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (2018) and the Serious Accidents Punishment Act (2021) was established (Kim, 2019).
10.29 Disaster Recalls the Question of State Responsibility
However, the 10.29 Disaster in 2022 brought back the question of the state’s role in fundamental safety principles, causing the people to ask, “Where was the state in the streets of Itaewon?” The Korean civil society is suffering again from the ontological fear of a lack of government protection. Although political discourse on government safety principles had seemed to undergo reform after the Sewol Tragedy (2014), the government relapsed by taking limited responsibility for the Itaewon disaster. Instead of conducting a rigorous investigation into the causes of the tragedy, the current government purposely turned a blind eye. Although government officials and politicians from the Yongsan District arrived at the disaster site more than an hour after they had been informed, none of them took responsibility. Instead, they blamed the “lack of safety manuals” for such an event (Na & Kim, 2022). When it turned out that a “safety management manual for multi-gathering events” had already been published by the police in 2005, the government tried to blame the fire department, the only authority present at the disaster site, with a search and seizure warrant (Jeon, 2022).
The issue of revealing the victims’ names to the public was also a controversial topic. While the government initially decided against it, civil organisations strongly criticised the decision as another way for the government to avoid taking responsibility. Recently, Interior Minister Lee Sang-min was also caught falsely stating that there was no official list of the victims’ families, although it was later revealed that he had already received the list on October 31st (Yoon, 2022). While there has been an inherent lack of coverage from mainstream Korean media that highlights the victims’ perspectives, interviews of victims’ family members were mostly covered only by small, non-profit, independent journalism channels such as Newstapa or OhmyNews TV (Newstapa, 2022; OhmyTV, 2022). As more and more facts about the government’s failure to take responsibility for the lack of safety measures and an upright post-disaster treatment have been revealed, it has become increasingly difficult for mainstream Korean media to cover the issue. The father of victim Cho Ye-ji would argue that “the only thing I can do for my daughter now is to join this interview… I know that the government does not at all protect the life [emphasis added] of me and my family” (Newstapa, 2022).
Therefore, the 10.29 Disaster and discussions about its political implications are not a coincidental issue that temporarily caught the attention of the Korean public. It can be seen as part of the recent rise of safety discourses within Korean society, which have been dynamically discussed from the bottom-up by civil society. While discourse on safety had seemed to bring actual institutionalised change to safety measures, the Itaewon Disaster has boiled the discussions back down to the fundamental issue: the unstable relationship between the state and its responsibility to ensure citizens’ safety.
As a result, Korean society has been engaged in lengthy and heated debates over the issue of state responsibility ever since. The “Itaewon Disaster Investigation Committee” had conducted a total of two site investigations, two institution report processes, two confirmation hearings, and two public hearings (Choi, 2023). The opposing political parties in Korea were not able to reach any kind of agreement, especially due to the issue of punishing government officials, and a complex entanglement has been made between political interests and post-disaster treatment. However, it is also true that safety discourses in Korea have become inextricably linked with politics, making it impossible to address the issue without considering political implications. On January 17th, three progressive parties officially announced that they would form an “independent investigation organisation” to further the truth ascertainment processes of the disaster (Choi, 2023). A long-lasting political controversy is expected to continue, and it is clear that safety discourses and their state relevance will again rise as an important agenda throughout the next four years of the current government administration.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publications, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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