A disaster still unfolding


The author is deputy editor of economic policy news at JoongAng Ilbo.

Itaewon-dong has always been a bustling place. The name itself comes from yeokwon of the Joseon Dynasty. The term yeok refers to a place lending horses to government officials and messengers before a long journey, and the term won refers to a government facility providing accommodation and meals. Not far from present-day Itaewon-dong was the site of such a won named Itaewon, near present-day Yongsan High School in Yongsan District, central Seoul.

The names of key transportation points always have names ending in won, such as in Jochiwon, Indeokwon, and Janghowon, and all of them were yeokwon sites. Itaewon connected the capital, center and Yeongnam regions as a transportation hub since the Goryeo Dynasty. It was a place where many people and supplies gathered when traveling between the Yeongnam area and the capital.

A disaster has unfolded in present-day Itaewon, a place where large crowds fill all the alleyways on weekends and holidays. Additionally, it was the first Halloween weekend without a mask mandate since the Covid-19 outbreak. But there was no crowd control as an official Halloween festivities organizer was not specified. The crush of the crowd took place suddenly, in a narrow alley filled with dense crowds. Chaos led to disaster. Despite the struggle of many firefighters, police, medical personnel and citizens to save dying young people by administering CPR, they could not save them all.

Some blame the victims saying “Why did they go there?” But the victims are not at fault. As similar disasters have happened at stadiums, religious events and concerts in other countries, it could happen to anyone, anywhere. But that shouldn’t happen to anyone.

A terrible feeling of helplessness and bottomless despair engulfed all of Korean society. We are witnessing another national disaster that we never wanted to see again after the Sewol ferry tragedy in 2014. As the grief and pain expressed by Koreans eight years ago returns, routine lives are swept away.

The Itaewon disaster is still ongoing. Many injured are still in critical condition. The trauma of survivors, witnesses and bereaved families is just the beginning. This is why follow-up measures are desperately needed to support them. A thorough and rigorous investigation into the cause and course of the disaster must also follow. So many lives should never again perish without mercy.


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