Last year’s Halloween was a day that shocked and hurt Korea and other countries. This is because 156 people died at a Halloween festivity in Itaewon, Seoul. A large crowd gathered in a narrow and inclined alley, resulting in an additional 195 injuries. Since then, two people who were receiving hospital treatment also died, and a teenage male student who left his friends and survived alone committed suicide. As a result, the total number of deaths came to 159.
Oct. 29, 2023, marked the first year after the disaster, and the 10·29 Itaewon Disaster Bereaved Families and People’s Committee for the Itaewon Disaster of October 29 held the 1st memorial ceremony at Seoul Plaza. The bereaved families and many citizens took time to remember the 159 victims with the catchphrase “Please unite for solidarity and steps to the fight for truth.”
Over the past year, there have been a lot of press reports about the disaster. Most of them dealt with political content. Newstapa data reporter Kim Kang-min analyzed articles by referring to keywords such as Itaewon disaster, Halloween disaster, etc. from Oct. 29, 2022, to Sept. 30, 2023. According to this result, except for March 2023, the proportion of political articles was higher than articles about bereaved families. In Sept. 2023, the ratio exceeded 2:1. The children, family, and friends who left their houses laughing to enjoy the festival would not return home. It follows, therefore, that the bereaved families who lost their loved ones in a moment, would be having more heartbreaking days than anyone else.
The Group Memorial Altar for 10·29 Itaewon Disaster at Seoul Plaza
On Nov. 11, CBT reporters visited the site of the group memorial altar for this disaster. This was located in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Library, at Seoul Plaza. Next to it was a campaign to obtain signatures to find out the truth of the disaster and punish the responsible people. A million and one memos of citizens memorializing the victims were left on a large memo board right next to it. For about 40 minutes, more than 20 people visited the memorial altar. Some people shed tears, and some just lingered for a long time. Some citizens took purple ribbon key rings made by the bereaved families signing on to the campaign.
However, the atmosphere around the memorial altar was quite different. On the day of covering, a large-scale demonstration was held nearby, making the area very noisy. In addition, in the center of Seoul Plaza, exciting songs were playing for Seoul Outdoor Library. Moreover, there were someone who were angry with the bereaved families using harsh words while passing by the memorial altar. It was a political opinion not related to the disaster, and the nearby police mediated the situation.
The families of the 10·29 Itaewon Disaster Bereaved Families take turns every day to act as guards of the memorial altar. The CBT reporters met Joung Mi-ra and Anonymous A, who were the guards that day, and heard the story of the families.
10·29 Itaewon Disaster Bereaved Families
When asked what they had been doing as members of the Bereaved Families, Joung said, “After the disaster, I could not go out of the house, so I joined the Bereaved Families at a later stage. I am so grateful to the families who have planned and worked on many things before. Afterward, we received a petition agreement to enact a special law on the Itaewon disaster and participated in the Truth Bus Rounds. We held the 200-day memorial ceremony, 159km walking event, and the 300-day memorial ceremony, and joined the 1st memorial ceremony together.”
A added, “We regularly hold meetings. Since there is no opportunity for the bereaved families to gather at the same time, we share our news through the meetings.”
The Absence of a National Apology and Support
When asked if they had ever received an apology from the government, Joung and A said, “We have never received an apology from anyone, not from the president, the minister, Seoul Metropolitan City Mayor, the head of Yongsan-gu, nor the chief of the National Police Agency.” In addition, they claimed, “The president has never visited and apologized to us, even though such a big disaster occurred due to the lack of an appropriate national system. Also, in the media, it is reported that ‘They will clarify the responsibility.’ and that ‘The government apologized.’”
Next, Joung said, “After the disaster, my husband received a text message from the support group of the Ministry of the Interior and Safety (MOIS). He did not answer the message, then he received a call a few days later. They said, ‘If you are having a hard time, get counseling.’ There is no support from the support group of the MOIS or the National Center for Disaster and Trauma for bereaved families.” She explained, “After that, the Medical and Psychological Support Group under the People’s Committee for the Itaewon Disaster of October 29 was formed. My husband has consulted with the support group. However, after my child is no longer with me, could I be comforted by going to counseling?”
Besides, “Most citizens recognize that the bereaved families are receiving a lot of support from the government, because of the media. In contrast, we do not really have anything.” she stated.
Secondary Victimization Online and Offline
Joung said, “Young people, like the victims’ siblings, saw an abundance of comments such as ‘Do you deserve national merits? How much more do you want?’”
In addition, A explained, “When I was picketing in Jeonju in April, a citizen approached and said something bad, ‘Why are you talking bad about the president? You need to clear out this memorial altar.’ My heart was broken at that moment, but this was not the most severe incident. When the group memorial altar was in Noksapyeong Station, I was watching the situation through a live broadcast. The bereaved families who were there literally fainted. If you do not go through it yourself, you really do not know how we feel. We are really hurt by people’s casual comments as they pass by,” she added.
Asked if there were any government measures against these secondary victimizations, A said, “There is nothing the government does. In fact, they are the ones perpetrating secondary victimization through their thoughtless utterances.”
Continued Evasion of Responsibility
Even after a year, no one has taken responsiblity for the disaster. In response, Joung said, “The Supreme Court also ruled that they were not responsible, and all the indicted people have been released on bail and are still working in their original positions.” Then, she claimed, “There was a promise made when the Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee sang-min took office. ‘We will establish and advance a disaster safety system so that the people can live safely from disasters.’ However, after the disaster, he said, ‘It is not a problem that the pre-deployment of police or fire personnel could have solved.’ I think it was definitely possible to prevent it. He is avoiding responsibility.” Also, she said, “That is why we are striving to enact the special law. I think the last thing parents have to do for our children is to set up an independent investigative organization, and then to ensure that those responsible can be punished. We will do it to the end, to the best of our ability. It is because we are mothers and fathers.”
A Word from the Bereaved Families
Finally, Joung said, “After the disaster, many people say, ‘Why have you set up a memorial altar and why are you fighting until now? Is the government not doing everything for you?’ We are not protesting like this to get compensation. No one else should be sacrificed in future disasters, and there should be no more bereaved families like us. I hope this pain has ended in my generation. Therefore, it is necessary to form a proper and safe society and come up with measures to prevent a recurrence. That is why some children have gone, but parents are still fighting for the remaining children.”
A said, “There have been so many disasters so far. I hope it does not happen again in the future, but we cannot be certain. Disasters may occur, but I think it is important to deal with them later. I hope there will be no casualties if at all possible, and that the responsible people will be held accountable. May the truth become fully known even though it is not the wish of the powers that be. I hope the government will show their diligent efforts to this end.”
None of the words, “I will take responsibility. We will support the bereaved families.” were observed. However, this fact was not even properly known to the public. The bereaved families had to endure words such as “What is wrong with you? The nation says it will support you.” and the fatal secondary victimization. “You can get counseling, but get through it on your own.” was rather adding to the scars of the bereaved families. However, the families did not stop speaking for their loved ones who departed.
Regarding the 1st memorial ceremony in Oct., Joung and A said, “We cried because we remembered our children who left, and it was so hard. Besides, we were worried that many citizens would come to the memorial ceremony, but we were so grateful that there were so many people in so much as there were not enough seats. The weather was cold that evening, but it was heartwarming.” Remembering the victims and not forgetting this is the real thing citizens can do
By Seok Yeon-ji | email@example.com
By Kim Ja-hyeon | firstname.lastname@example.org