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

SEOUL – Because a mass Halloween gathering was not an official festival, no crowd-control measures were in place to police the giant street party that ended in horror as 156 revelers were killed as a result of a crowd crush on October 29 in Seoul.   

In a remarkable revelation, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo admitted to foreign reporters in Seoul that public events in South Korea that take place without a specific host or organizing body fall under the radars of police, local government and central government agencies.

For this reason, there was no crowd flow planning or specialist policing in Seoul’s Itaewon district, the site of a customary but spontaneous street party every Halloween, on the fatal night. By the time calls for emergency assistance were made, it was impossible to control the vast crowd, reporters learned.

This failure of pre-planning came despite the flooding of an estimated 100,000 people into the narrow streets and alleys of the after-hours neighborhood. It is also despite the fact that the huge numbers who attend the Halloween weekend gathering in the area are well-known nationwide – even regionwide.

And it is despite widespread and deep experience, built up over decades, of policing mass gatherings – such as the “million man” political protests of 2016 – and world-level sporting events including the 2002 World Cup and the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Indeed, anyone who has visited central Seoul on a Saturday afternoon will have witnessed highly efficient policing of the demonstrations that customarily take place in downtown plazas and boulevards. Coach loads of police are on hand; barriers control crowd flow; marchers are escorted along routes.

None of this expertise, experience or manpower was deployed to Itaewon when tragedy struck the mass descent upon the district on October 29. Then, a high-spirited, densely-packed crowd surged into a narrow, sloped alleyway – resulting in a wave of falling bodies, an inability to rise and mass suffocations.  

The tragedy has ignited a sweeping systemic overview. It has also resurrected wider questions as to whether South Korea – low crime and high tech but prone to systemic failures that generate lethal disasters – is a safe or unsafe nation.

Why the tragedy occurred

The Halloween horror has piled pressure on the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol administration, which was already reeling from low approval ratings even before the mass killing.

Adding further pressure, it is operating in a democracy whose citizens demand high standards of accountability of their leaders, witnessed in the jailings of three former presidents.

To address concerns, Yoon fielded one of his most experienced operators to undergo hours of questioning from foreign reporters today (November 1).

A Korean mourns those killed in a stampede disaster in downtown Seoul on October 29. Image: Screengrab / NDTV

Harvard-educated Prime Minister Han, the government’s point man for the disaster, is a former ambassador to the US and ex-finance minister. A widely respected public figure, he served as premier in both progressive and conservative administrations.

Highly unusually, Han refused his personal assistant’s entreaties to wrap up the press conference, insisting on answering every question posed.

“It is clear that there is some lack of completeness in our system,” Han said. Crowd-control policing can only work “only when the responses were pre-arranged.”

In Itaewon, those measures had not been pre-arranged, Han explained.

Systemically, when a demonstration, festival or sport event is planned, Han said, organizers contact relevant authorities, who then deploy police to control crowds. No crowd-control measures were in Itaewon as no official request had been made by an organizing body.

Indeed, no organizing body exists. Itaewon’s Halloween event is customarily a spontaneous gathering of youth who pour into the district’s streets, pubs and clubs. It is known via word of mouth, as well as via marketing by individual owners of entertainment spots.

Absent any organizing body, why did the local government not request special measures? Elements of devilish bad luck and prior experience may explain that: Though it has been an intensely crowded fixture on Seoul’s social calendar for years, no such disaster ever transpired on previous Itaewon Halloweens.

“Normally this kind of gathering should be peaceful, and up to now they have been peaceful,” Han said. “There are some kinds of black swans and we should prepare for the worst, but these people are not politically-motivated.”

The police deployed to the district on Saturday were not sufficient in numbers – nor equipped or deployed – to manage choke points or crowd flow.

“What police were worrying about was abuse of [drugs], sexual harassment or some kind of personal fight,” Han conceded.

Clearly, a wider police overview is essential.

“We will drastically reform the system so police can always [act] without any request from local governments or from any persons or entities that request some kind of assistance from the police when they organize some kind of ceremony or celebration,” Han vowed.

“We are looking into our foundations so we do not leave any loopholes behind,” he added.

Changing face of K-cops

Another relevant issue may be the long overhang from authoritarian governance that has led to today’s very touchy-feely police force.

Koreans won democracy via mass protests in 1987 after decades of military rule. In those days, the police force was widely seen as a repressive, face-stamping force. Today, it is a far more public-friendly, low-impact body.

“In the past, there were certain precedents….in which the police tried to control and limit the movement of the public…. and there were certain negative sentiments because that may have been a result of authoritarianism,” Han said. “Maybe, from a safety measures standpoint, we have to rethink these perspectives, overhaul everything and prioritize safety first.”

A long-term Korea watcher has noted these changes.

Previously, “the regular police looked hard, they were the kind of people who would knock you around,” Michael Breen, Seoul-based author of The New Koreans, told Asia Times.

“Then, in the 1990s or 2000s they started hiring different types of people and adopted mascots, it was very cutesy and they presented themselves as smiling, to get away from that unpleasant image.”

Breen, who experienced the whirlwind days of often-violent pro-democracy protests in the 1980s, commented on changed behaviors in both police and public.

“Even when there is crowd control, they do not assert themselves,” he said. “In the UK, say, if you had 50,000 people gathered, you would expect trouble, but young Koreans in crowds are extremely sweet people so there is not a felt need to police them.”

A safe country?

South Korea, like Japan and Singapore, has little street crime and there are no “no-go” districts in its capital.

It was also one of the most successful capitals at Covid-19 containment, exiting the crisis with per-capita death rates far below those of its European and North American peers – and all achieved without a single lockdown.

And every day, millions of commuters pack its densely packed public transport networks with no wipeouts.

Yet in defiance of its status as a manufacturing powerhouse, with a sparkling national infrastructure and widespread takeup of world-class ICT devices, the country continues to suffer lethal, man-made disasters.

Public information source Wikipedia has a long list, dating back to 1953, the year the Korean War ended. Courtesy of democratization and its “economic miracle”, Korea joined the “rich nation’s club” of the OECD in 1996 but many disasters have taken place in the years since.

The aftermath of Seoul’s stampede. Image: Twitter

 These include the fire at an illegal bar in 1996 (killing over 50); a plane crash in 2002 (killing 129); an arson attack on a subway station in 2003 (killing 192); the sinking of the ferry Sewol in 2014 (killing 304); a grate collapse at a K-pop concert (killing 16), and multiple lethal fires in gyms, hospitals and warehouses, killing scores.

As with the Itaewon crowd crush, many of these disasters originate in faulty software – misgovernance, systemic failure, unobserved regulation, corruption – rather than problematic hardware.

At a time when South Korea is the focus of interest and affection as the generator of much global pop culture – from supergroups BTS and Black Pink to cinematic sensations “Parasite” and “Squid Game” – Han hoped the Itaewon carnage would not tarnish the national brand.

“I hope that this will not affect in any degree on the image global young men and women, boys and girls have on Korea,” the prime minister said. “Our government will do our best to recuperate some of the concerns they may have…so we will maintain our good image as one of the safest countries in the world.”

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