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  • Writer's pictureEthan An

Blind and Lost, A Nation: Mask, Masquerade

By: Ethan An June 21, 2023


It was not the first time tears of sorrow fell upon Korea’s concrete floors for a failure of public safety. The first time was on April 16, 2014, after the sinking of MV Sewol, a ferry en route from Incheon to Jeju filled with high school students, leading to the deaths of 250 students. Today, that generation, now eight years older and in their early 20s, were the primary victims of Itaewon’s crowd crush. October 29th marked the resumption of Itaewon’s annual Halloween celebrations following the release of COVID restrictions. As a result of extreme overcrowding, 159 individuals lost their lives: crushed to death. Recollecting familiar but harrowing memories, South Korea was left wondering why the government failed to provide basic public safety to the innocent youth twice.

Itaewon is Seoul’s district of freedom, reminding visitors that Korea is far from homogenous. In its concrete alleys lie bars, diverse cultures of restaurants, and most importantly, symbolic events marking key holidays. Located only half a square mile from a U.S. military garrison inherited following the end of Japan’s colonial rule, Itaewon serves as a beacon to remember the day when Korea broke free of its strictures of Japanese control. For that reason, Itaewon is, and always has been, a district where the young can break free from the constraints of everyday life.

In the event of a tragedy like Itaewon’s crowd crush, a nation’s persisting emotion is, undoubtedly, grief. In this instance of the twice broken hopes of South Koreans, it was only natural to see blood-boiling fury among the citizens. But, a new sentiment kindled: that of doubt. In a metropolitan city of 26 million people, crowd control for festivals, parades, or protests should have been unmistakably necessary. Yet, on the night of the incident, a mere 58 officers were dispatched to manage a crowd of over a hundred thousand people in a single alleyway. What was more striking was the fact that 6,000 police officers were dispatched to surveil a peaceful protest against President Yoon earlier that same day. More officers were stupendously dispatched to surveil a non-threatening protest rather than a mass of thousands.

It soon became evident that the government’s initial strategy of downplaying the incident as an “accident” was not enough to dissipate the rage. Even when 23 officers faced jail time for death by professional negligence shortly after the incident, citizens came to denounce the fact that high-ranking officials were spared from accountability. Noticing that Korea was revamping as a nation seeded in doubt and mistrust soon became apparent.

Following the Sewol incident, South Korea had overburdened itself to recover from its wounds of losing hopeful high schoolers. Following the Itaewon crowd crush, however, South Korea has ascertained and embraced its dwindling confidence in its political institutions, its public safety management, and political leaders. In the end, the second was the last straw for many.

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