Criticism against the South Korean government and local government’s poor response to the deadly Halloween crowd surge in Itaewon is growing. However, the government is still blaming the system for the disaster. “Without the host of an event or a local government in place, the police cannot handle the crowd in a centrally controlled way,” said Prime Minister Han Duk-soo in a press conference with foreign newspapers on Tuesday. It is in the same vein as Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min’s comment that it was not an issue that could have been addressed by dispatching police officers or firefighters in advance.
According to the Framework Act on the Management of Disasters and Safety and relevant manuals, safety management plans should be developed and cooperation is needed with the police and firefighters for ‘local festivals with a host and over 1,000 participants.’ Prime Minister Han’s comment sounds like the Halloween event in Itaewon was not one of such festivals, which limited the government’s role in it. However, the police and the local government can be involved in an event without a host. The Act on the Performance of Duties by Police Officers states that warning should be issued and refuge should be found in case of threats to the public’s safety, such as chaotic congestion. The Framework Act on the Management of Disasters and Safety also stipulates that the government and the local government should issue alerts and instruct evacuation when disasters are likely to occur.
As such, the police and the local government should have been prepared and gotten involved proactively when the emergency situation occurred. However, police officers were dispatched to the crowd surge site for only one of the calls made by citizens reporting the dangerously large number of people, even though eight such calls were classified as emergency situations. The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency expected a large crowd in Itaewon after 10 p.m. on Saturday before Halloween but did not reinforce police numbers. Business owners in Itaewon raised concerns about crowd crush during a meeting with the Yongsan-gu district office and the police three days before the tragedy, yet no measure was put in place. Both the central and local governments did not take minimal measures required by the law.
However, both governments seem busy trying to avoid responsibility, rather than reflecting on their faults and seeking ways to prevent recurrences. The Seoul metropolitan government drew a line by saying that it was not the host event right after the tragedy and the Yongsan district government also expressed that it was not responsible for the safety issue as Halloween is not an official local event. The government’s decision to use ‘accident,’ rather than ‘disaster,’ and ‘deaths,’ rather than ‘victims,’ with regard to the tragedy clearly seems like an effort to avoid accountability. However, such attempts will not lighten the weight of responsibility. It will only weaken the public’s trust in the government and exacerbate the aftermath of the disaster, including controversy about the secondary victimization of those who passed away.