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Itaewon Disaster: Who killed 158 children?(1)


The system killed them and the wrong leader killed the system


By Joseph H. Chung (정희수) Professor of economics, Quebec University in Montreal (UQAM)




In the evening of October 29, 130,000 men and women wearing Halloween costumes went to Itaewon area in Seoul to have fun and enjoy the freedom from 3-year COVID-19 confinement.


The joyful laughter, merry songs and cry of freedom suddenly turned into voice of despair, fear, agony and last fading voice of dying children calling for loved family and friends.


On narrow and steep alley, tens of thousands of people were pushing and shoving and the people at the lower part of the alley crushed to death under the weight of layers of human bodies.


It was a man-made disaster which should not happen, which could not happen. But it happened and it took away 158 precious and young lives including 26 foreign persons and injured 198 people.


The world is asking how such disaster can happen in a country like South Korea which is known as model country for economic development, security, safety and democracy, especially under the liberal government of Moon Jae-in.


The question the world is asking why this man-made disaster happened in South Korea.


What I am going to say may disturb some and even infuriate some others. But, it is about the time that the world should be aware of the disturbing political reality which is, in the final analysis, responsible for the disaster.


I am writing this paper hoping that the world opinion will be formed and put pressure on the South Korean government so that hidden truth be discovered, the responsible people be punished and similar man -made disaster never happens again.


I am offering my sincere condolence to the surviving parents including 26 surviving parents of foreign countries.


I hope also that the surviving parents of foreign countries join Koreans in fighting for the truth of why and how their children died.


This paper examines the following

• Failure of the Public Safety System

• Reasons for the System Failure

• Impact of the Disaster on Politics of South Korea


1. Failure of the public safety system

The low priority given to the public safety is responsible for the disaster. It is argued that, in this paper, the public safety failed due to absence of public safety planning.


A good system of public safety planning should include the following: prior safety planning, disaster management, post disaster analysis and judicial measure designed to prevent similar disaster in the future.


But in this section, I will deal with the prior planning and disaster management.


Prior planning: The prior planning for the event of Halloween festivity should be the responsibility of the mayor of Yongsan District where Itaewon is located. But, the mayor for some mysterious reasons failed to do so.


This is difficult to understand in view of the fact that Yongsan District (ward) had undertaken, for years in the past, large scale events in the Itaewon area including the Halloween festivities.


What the Yongsan District government did was the planning only for   traffic ticket control and rubbish collection excluding safety planning for the Halloween crowd.


In other words, there was no prior safety planning at all to protect the young Halloween lovers. This is incomprehensible in view of the fact that a very large crow was expected to converge toward the Itaewon area.


Management of the disaster: In the absence of prior safety planning, it was not easy to conduct properly the crowd management. Before anything else, the communication network did not work.


Somebody should have reported the danger and somebody should have sent help. In this case, the help was the Korean National Police Special Operation Unit (KNPSOU). In fact, somebody reported the danger, but no help came.


On the day of the disaster, October 29, already at 16:00, the Halloween crowd started to increase in size. By 18:00, on a narrow and steep alley, there were so many people that somebody called the 112 emergency call center to explain the situation and asked for help which did not come.


The following is the list of SOS calls: 18:34: 20:09: 20:33: 20:53; 21:00; 21:02; 21:07; 21:10; 21:51; 22:11. There were 11 calls. On this list, one call is missing.


We can see that the calls for help became dramatically more frequent after 21:00. This shows that the number of deaths was increasing rapidly after 21:00.


As the time went by, there were 30 people in a space of 8 m2.. A large crowd was going up the alley, while equally large crowd was coming down the alley. And somewhere in the alley, the two crowds collided and many people fell and crushed to death by the weight of layers of human bodies. They could not breath, they died.


The hellish drama continued until 22:30 and 158 young lives were sacrificed because of the stupidity, the cruelty and irresponsibility of adults who should have known better.


The deployment of one special operation units of police (KNPSOU) could prevent the disaster. They were near the scene of the disaster, but they did not come, because somebody decided not to send them to the scene of the disaster.


In short, the disaster management went nowhere. Those who could prevent the disaster were not duty at crucial time.


Park Hee-yong, mayor of Yongsan District government saw the massing crowd, but she was not there to prevent the tragedy.


Lee Jae-hee: Yongsan District Police chief was aware of the crisis and asked Seoul Metropolitan Police agency for the deployment of the KNPSOU specialized in managing large crowd. But no help came.


Ryu Mi-jin, chief of the 112 call center was absent in the room managing the emergency calls.


Kim Gwang-ho Seoul Metropolitan Police chief was not present in his office. He was at home at the night of October 29 and received the report after midnight.


Yoon hee-geun, chief of the National Police Agency went to his home town and camping sight at the night of October 29. He received the report after midnight.




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