South Korean Yoon Suk-yeol is taking the blame for a Halloween stampede tragedy. Image: ABC News / Screengrab

SEOUL – If the Sword of Damocles mutated into a multi-bladed Swiss knife, that is the contraption that would now be hanging low over the head of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol.

Yoon, who took power in May with a razor-thin electoral victory margin, has since been beset by low approval ratings generated by a series of gaffes and general bad optics.

Now, the Halloween crowd crush that killed 156 young people in the Seoul district of Itaewon on October 29 has massively upped his vulnerability. And Yoon has just expended yet more of his diminished stock of political capital by green-lighting a Korean presence at a Sunday naval review with bete noire Japan, raising nationalistic hackles.

These are piling further weight onto the serious tonnage of policy issues – North Korean bellicosity, domestic inflation, risks to the nation’s semiconductor exports driven by both a cyclical downtown and US decoupling demands – which would present a challenge even to the most experienced president.

Yoon, a state prosecutor for his entire career, has no such experience – and the knives are out. Over the weekend, as many as seven demonstrations took place around the capital, with protesters calling for the Yoon government to step down.

Korea is a famously restive democracy that holds its political leaders to stern account. Could Yoon’s problems mount in the weeks and months ahead, leading to the kind of political crisis that saw the last conservative president, Park Geun-hye, punted from the presidential office to jail cell in 2017?

Halloween revelers in Seoul before the stampede began. Image: Screengrab / Skynews

Angry crowds

After a whirlwind week of mourning and soul-searching, the altars that sprang up across Seoul to memorialize the October 29 Halloween crowd crush tragedy have come down. As the weekend demonstrations show, that means the lid is off.

The protests may have been on Yoon’s mind this morning. “I am apologetic and sorry to the surviving families who are facing indescribable tragedy and to the people that are sharing the pain and sadness together,” he said. “The government will revisit the policies related to safety regulations of disasters and make major improvements in structural problems.”

Structural problems enabled the tragedy.

No riot police were deployed to the scene due to no request being made for their presence from festival organizers – there were none; the mass party was organic – or the local government – likely due to the fact that no disasters had visited previous Halloween festivals.

What is less clear is why there was no response to multiple calls to police lines in the hours preceding the disaster, warning of the dangerous conditions. Nor is it clear why so many senior police officials did not take charge when the tragedy occurred. The latter question is doubly freighted, as it has transpired that a crowd-control squad was on stand-by close to Itaewon on the night but was not deployed.

Inevitably, demands have risen for the resignation or sacking of the prime minister, the minister of the interior and safety, the chief of the impacted district and senior police officials. An official probe is underway.

Angst is particularly widespread among youth. While South Korea is a highly secure society for the young – youth poverty is virtually invisible, street crime and violence is extremely rare and the nation handled Covid-19 far better than its European or North American peers – many youth expressed feelings of insecurity at weekend demonstrations.

Adding to Yoon’s tribulations, on Sunday, a South Korean vessel joined a naval review held to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force. Commentaries in local media and elsewhere claimed that Korean sailors had saluted Japan’s “Rising Sun” naval ensign.

In recent years, a movement has grown up in Korea that compares the flag to the German swastika and lobbies for its ban internationally. In 2018, a Japanese warship declined to take part in a Korean naval review after Korean organizers forbade the flying of the ensign.

Yoon has discarded the anti-Japanese posture of the former Moon Jae-in administration, but given still touchy national feelings, it is a risky policy. The policy prompted the left-leaning Hankoyreh newspaper to run an essay, “S Korean public polarized by Yoon’s push for security collaboration with Japan.”

While overseas observers, familiar with a bellicose North Korea and an assertive China, may understand why Yoon is cozying up to Japan, they may be puzzled why he is taking the blame for the mistakes of police and local officials.

One answer is that Korea is a polity that holds its presidents acutely accountable. In just six decades, one has been exiled, one assassinated, one sentenced to death, one driven to suicide, and one – Park – impeached and jailed.

Yoon is the first conservative president to hold office since Park fell following million-person candlelit demonstrations protesting her reliance upon the counsel of a dubious and corrupt acquaintance.  

But the origins of Park’s unpopularity lay in 2014, when she was widely blamed for the ineffective response to the sinking of the ferry Sewol, which killed 304 people – mainly youths.

Given this precedent, the political environment is stormy.

A Japanese veteran of the Imperial Japanese Navy, carrying a rising sun ensign, leads a group into the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. The flag raises furious hackles in Korea. Photo: AFP

Mercury rising

This Saturday, this writer was subjected to an angry tirade by a dinner companion who insisted that conservative presidencies invoke disasters. On Sunday, a stranger on a bus made the same point. Everyone has an opinion.

“I would say the temperature in South Korea is 99 degrees and water boils at 100 degrees so there is very little room for Yoon to maneuver,” David Tizzard, a lecturer in Korea Studies at Seoul Woman’s University told Asia Times. “It does not always boil over in South Korea but we know it can, it has and it does.”

Kim Sung-nam, a college lecturer, reckons Yoon has breathing space that Park did not during the Sewol crisis.

“The Sewol families all belonged to the same school and knew each other in the same city so were a tightly-knit unit, whereas the Itaewon victims’ families are widely spread out, so it will be hard for grieving families to create an organized movement,” Kim, a vocal critic of Yoon on social media, told Asia Times.

“Yoon is perhaps being lulled into complacency as there is a slower development in the public reaction, but when the public wakes up I think it will be worse than the Sewol.”

Michael Breen, author of “The New Koreans”, credited Yoon for being on watch at the time the tragedy took place and for his swift moves in visiting the scene, ordering an investigation and appearing at altars and commemorations.

But at least one of Yoon’s offerings of flowers at an altar has been smashed by people angry at the tragedy and Breen is unsure which way the dominant mood will swing.

“It is not just that the government is supposed to protect the people, but something that goes back to Confucian times and the ‘mandate of heaven’ – the signal that it is OK to remove the king if there has been a disaster,” he said.

“If the investigation is adequate and someone like the police chief is removed and a big reform is announced I suspect he will weather it, but protesters are out there wanting to undo the election and that could escalate.”

Certainly, this weekend’s protests were complete with raised candles and chants calling for Yoon to step down. These signs hold power, for Korea is a densely communal democracy in which mass street politics has a long and honorable tradition.

“When people are angry they show it in person, en masse, with visibility, regularly and peacefully,” Tizzard said. “It takes place in a physical reality that people walk through, and that creates a powerful narrative.”

Still, if a protest movement against Yoon breaks out, it will probably not be unopposed.

The right was caught off-guard by the mass demonstrations against Park in 2016 but subsequently mobilized. In recent years, crowds of predominantly older, conservative flag-waving citizens have become Seoul’s most visible protesters.

Some allege that the weekend protests against the government were the work of established political players infuriated by a government investigation into opposition leader Lee Jae-myung.

“They are trying to overcome Yoon’s aggression against Lee and found this an opportunity to diminish the prosecution’s efforts,” Yang Sun-mook, a former international relations chair of the Democratic Party of Korea, told Asia Times.

Indeed, political polarities may have about peaked if the very minor shifts in polls are an accurate gauge.

The first RealMeter poll since the Halloween disaster, published today, found Yoon’s People Power Party approval rate had dropped from 37.6% to 37.4%, while the opposition Democratic Party of Korea rose from 464% to 46.8%. Yoon’s personal ratings, 34.2%, were down just 1.5% from the prior week.

The Itaewon disaster is the deadliest to hit South Korea since the sinking of the ferry Sewol in 2014. Photo: AFP / EyePress/ Korea Coast Guard

Voice of the victims

But it is not simply partisan politics. Korea – a country that in the 20th century suffered colonization, war, authoritarianism and ongoing division – is a society in which victimhood is widespread. Since democratization in 1987, victims have become greatly empowered.

Despite – or perhaps, because – of that empowerment people who have suffered injustices frequently hold on to festering grievances. This leads to them refusing to accept explanations for tragedies, or turning down compensation or apologies that would close political doors and heal psychological would.

“What I can’t understand in Korea is that the families of the Sewol [still] say that they don’t understand what happened to the ship,” Breen mused. “Or,  like the comfort women, no apology is good enough.”

The reason an investigation found for the ferry’s sinking – a top-heavy superstructure; an overweight and unsecured cargo; a sharp turn by an inexperienced mate and a resultant sharp list – is widely distrusted.

Likewise, an apology-compensation package put together for ex-comfort women by Japanese government-civic bodies in the 1990s, and a subsequent official effort in 2015, were rejected by an NGO representing the women.

If the opposition can successfully leverage incendiary emotion, the appropriate weapon – impeachment – has already been unsheathed.

It was first wielded, unsuccessfully, by a conservative national assembly against progressive president Roh Moo-hyun in 2004. But it succeeded when a progressive assembly deployed it against Park in December 2016.

A two-thirds majority in the National Assembly is needed for an impeachment motion to go ahead. Currently, the opposition DPK control the house but not the necessary numbers: They hold 56.53% of seats, while Yoon’s People Power Party hold 38.46%.

Kim, the college instructor, reckons that Yoon’s fate, like Park’s, could take a couple of years to be sealed.

“If his approval ratings remain low and the Democratic Party of Korea wins big in the 2024 National Assembly elections, then impeachment may happen,” he said. “2024 might be his year of reckoning.”

Not all agree. Yang reckons that those seeking to make political hay from the disaster could themselves face a backlash.

“The protests against Park were organic, then established groups – politicians and trade unionists – jumped in as they saw a political opportunity,” he said. “They are doing it again, but a lot of people are now thinking more critically than before.”

Follow this writer on Twitter at @ASalmonSeoul