Itaewon crush: How South Korea let down its young people

The shopkeeperBBC/ Danny Bull

It is such a small, insignificant space, running perhaps 60 metres down the hill, and narrowing to just three and a half metres wide near the bottom.

It is too narrow to be lit by the morning sun. The alley doesn’t even have a name.

Were it not for the single strip of orange tape, and the two police officers standing guard, you would pass it without a glance.

On one side is the high, featureless wall of the Hamilton Hotel rising ten storeys. On the other, a cluster of small shops. A green sign marks “Milano Collection”, a fashion store 81-year-old Nam In-seok has run for the past 11 years.

He witnessed the horrific event on the night of 29 October, when the little alley became a death trap.

“Already at 19:00 I thought it was too crowded, and I was worried. It was very uncomfortable for the people walking, and the entrance to my shop was completely blocked.

“People were lining up for a restaurant, and at the same time more people were trying to come up from the main street.

“At around 21:50, as I opened the door of my shop, two young women fell in. They had no shoes on, and they were covered with dirt and bruises. I hugged them to help them calm down.

“I could hear people outside screaming ‘help me’. I thought they might be fighting. I went outside and saw people piling up on top of each other.

“People were screaming for help, and I tried to pull them out, but I couldn’t. All those young people, they couldn’t breathe, and they were completely exhausted.”

Mr Nam is haunted by what he saw that night. He stayed out trying to help the victims until 04:00.

“I helped them clean up after the incident. There were so many things left on the street, such as shoes and bags. The police asked me to help collect the bags and clothes, so I did so. How could I go to sleep? I couldn’t.”

At the peak of the crush, a little after 22:00, a video captured a single police officer struggling to disperse revellers from the top of the alley, who were unaware of the tragedy unfolding downhill.

“Please move, people are dying”, he kept shouting – clearly distressed.

An assistant inspector in Seoul, Kim Baek-gyeom, was on duty that night and has received a lot of praise for his efforts. But his own account of how he got to the scene is revealing.

The Itaewon police station is only a few hundred metres from the alley, yet he stayed there until the fatal crush took place.

When he was finally called out it was to investigate what he had been told was a possible fight. He had no idea until he got there that people were dying.

By that time the police had already received 11 panicked calls, the first at 18:34, alerting them to dangerous levels of overcrowding.

The public perception that one of Asia’s most visible and efficient police forces did nothing to prevent this tragedy has shaken South Korea.

Each day the numbers of people coming to add their bouquets to the huge mound of white flowers near the alley have grown.

One woman screamed abuse at a police officer until she was pulled back by others explaining that it was not this individual’s fault.

President Yoon Suk-yeol has responded by setting up a special investigation team, but South Koreans have good reasons for being sceptical about whether the authorities will get to the bottom of what caused the deadly crush.

South Korea experienced one of its worst peacetime disasters in 2014 when a ferry carrying 325 students from Danwon High School in Ansan – an industrial town about an hour south of Seoul – capsized.

Some 250 of the teenagers died, along with 11 of their teachers and 43 others.

It later transpired that the ferry had been illegally altered and was overloaded with cargo that was not properly secured. The captain was sentenced to life in prison for murder, and many others prosecuted.

The investigation was highly politicised, with then-President Park Geun-hye eventually being unseated, in part because of her perceived failure to respond adequately to the disaster.

Three separate inquiries failed to shed light on important aspects of the disaster.

“Nothing has been properly revealed in the past eight years since we lost our children,” said Jang Dong-won, the father of Yei-jin, who survived the ferry sinking but lost six close friends.

“That anxiety, that the truth will once again be concealed this time, feels like another trauma for us. Why do young people, who have seen so little of life, have to die?

“A tragedy like this should not happen anymore. I really hope that this time the truth will be revealed, and I can live happily with my family in a really safe country.”

He now heads the 4/16 Sewol Families for Truth and A Safer Society, the group campaigning for full accountability for the disaster.

He spoke to me at the centre they have established in Ansan, not far from the school, to support bereaved parents.

Jang Dong-won

BBC/ Danny Bull

This sense, that a younger, more innocent generation has been betrayed once again by an older, more cynical one, is widely shared.

“The older generation has again sent young people to their deaths,” wrote one TikTok user. “Why do we let the past bite our future? Will we ever break this endless cycle?”

Another person on YouTube wrote: “As a Korean citizen in his 20s, I really feel that my country won’t protect me. I am so depressed.

“Am I really living in South Korea, a developed country in the 21st Century? Who should we, the young people, trust to keep living in this country?

“The politicians think they just need to hold onto their power, and don’t need to take any responsibility. This attitude makes me sick.”

The belief that safety in South Korea is sacrificed at the altar of the country’s headlong economic growth is nothing new.

It has been expressed after every big disaster – and the country has certainly had its share of them – and elicited promises that official attitudes to safety will change.

On the eighth anniversary of the ferry disaster, then President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol made a promise on his Facebook page.

“I believe making South Korea safer is the most sincere way to express condolences to the victims,” he wrote.

As public anger builds, President Yoon will find his government being tested and challenged over that promise.