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A year after deadly South Korean crush, families fight for accountability

Published Oct 26, 2023 04:29AM ET Updated Oct 26, 2023 07:21PM ET
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© Reuters. A police officer stands guard near floral tributes at the scene of a crowd crush that happened during Halloween festivities, in Seoul, South Korea, November 29, 2022. REUTERS/Heo Ran/File Photo

By Hyunsu Yim and Daewoung Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) -One year after Park Young-soo lost her only son in a Halloween weekend crowd crush that killed 159 people in the South Korean capital, she still can’t bring herself to open the door to his room.

She says she may not be able to move on with her life until she sees some kind of accountability from the government.

Park is one of more than 100 family members who say the authorities have done little to hold those responsible to account.

Like Park's 29-year-old son, Lee Nam-hoon, most victims were young people who went to Seoul's nightlife district of Itaewon on Oct. 29 for its famed Halloween parties.

At around 10 p.m., the crowds in the narrow streets and an alleyway around the Hamilton Hotel became so packed that people had trouble breathing.

Despite at least 11 emergency calls over some four hours warning of the worsening situation, authorities failed to respond before the crowd surged and left dozens of victims crushed or in cardiac arrest.

Lee died in the crush. His girlfriend survived.

This week, the area near the alley was designated as a space to remember the victims. Political fault lines formed in the disaster's wake are still evident.

President Yoon Suk Yeol won't be attending a memorial gathering near the Seoul city hall this weekend, with an official telling the Yonhap news agency it was "more of a political rally held by the opposition party".

Gatherings have not been banned in Itaewon over Halloween this year though authorities and police have been conducting crowd-control drills featuring an AI-backed network of nearly 1,000 closed-circuit TV cameras, ahead of the first anniversary of the disaster.

The Itaewon deaths shocked a nation still scarred by the 2014 sinking of a ferry, the Sewol, that killed 304 people including 250 children on a school trip.

The Halloween disaster prompted a period of national mourning and a police investigation that ended this year with an acknowledgement of negligence and a poor response by the authorities, and the referral of 23 officials for prosecution.

   But no senior government official has resigned or been removed over the disaster.

"The government agencies and the presidential office have been extremely irresponsible and inactive," Park said.

'IT HURTS MY HEART'

Yoon's office said in a statement the president had expressed on several occasions that he was "heartbroken and deeply sorry as president", and that remained unchanged.

"Our top priority is people’s lives and safety; the government will continue to assess the national safety system and make necessary improvements," the office said.

Interior Minister Lee Sang-min - who has fended off efforts to impeach him over the incident - issued an apology to victims on Wednesday and expressed "infinite responsibility" for failing to protect lives.

Relatives of the victims want a special law that would allow an independent and comprehensive investigation into the cause of the crush. A bill, backed by the opposition, has yet to be passed by the National Assembly without the support of the ruling People Power Party.

   "I just don't want the government to obstruct our effort," Park said with tears in her eyes, referring to the bid for an independent investigation.

Some ruling party lawmakers and a municipal official have accused the families and other critics of trying to profit from the tragedy, or even of acting on behalf of old rival North Korea.

Kim Young-nam, a mother who lost her daughter in the crush, said she wanted to restore the honour of victims subjected to baseless accusations of drug taking, and what critics said amounted to victim blaming for going out to mark the foreign festival of Halloween.

"It hurts my heart. We need a thorough investigation and preventative measures so that young people are never sacrificed like this," Kim said at a memorial altar outside Seoul's city hall.

Twenty-six of the victims were foreigners, from 14 countries including the U.S., Japan and Iran. A relative of one of them told a press conference on Thursday that foreign families felt isolated with no support from the government.

"Nothing is reported to us nor communicated to us," said Nari Kim from Austria, who lost her younger brother in the crush.

Jong-Woo Paik, chairman of the Korean Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, said the government had to show that lessons had been learned to avoid an erosion of trust in society.

"South Korea is an advanced country and the government should create an atmosphere and opportunities as a nation to overcome social disasters together," he said.

   "In this aspect, the Itaewon tragedy has been deeply regrettable."  

A year after deadly South Korean crush, families fight for accountability
 

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