Shame on Korea

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Shame on Korea

Park Jeong-ho

The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

My entire body was shaking all night. I could not sleep. At last, my rage exploded. Is this chaos real? I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. I even had the futile wish that maybe this all was just a dream.

I got a text message from a friend, who lives near Mt. Namsan, around midnight on Saturday. “50 cardiac arrests from Halloween stampede. I hear sounds of ambulances running in front of my house for 30 minutes,” it said. I could not believe it. It couldn’t be a joke in the middle of the night.

I turned on TV and urgent news reports came. What my friend told me was true. Youngsters collapsed in a small alley and rescue workers were performing CPR, while passersby were screaming nearby. It was hell.

I checked out social media services and I faced a more brutal reality than the TV reports. I could not look into them anymore. My feeling of helplessness grew deeper. Would there be another disaster like this?

I watched TV news and the feeling of despair deepened as time went by. The chief of Yongsan Fire Station gave several briefings and the tiny glimpse of hope disappeared. “What the hell is Halloween?” I even exploded. It wasn’t a collapse of a building, a fire nor a terrorist attack. I could not understand how it was possible that over 150 people were killed in central Seoul. It was a sense of fear that I had never experienced in any movie. I felt more and more ashamed.

Oct. 29 and 30, 2022 must be remembered as days of shame. We clearly witnessed the dark side of the world’s 10th largest economy and K-culture. I witnessed how shallow and unstable its foundation is. There was no better black comedy.

Personally, the latest tragedy was a larger shock than the collapse of Wau Apartment in 1970, the collapse of Seongsu Bridge in 1994, the collapse of Sampung Department Store in 1995 and the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014. Although they were man-made disasters, the latest tragedy was directly caused by people. I remembered that travelers were often crushed to death in the 1960s and 70s when the country was poor, but the latest nightmare took place in 2022, when the country is far richer and stronger, and that made it seem more unrealistic.

Multiple reasons caused the latest tragedy. On the weekend just before Halloween, young people massively went out to the streets for the first time in three years after they were released from the pressure of the Covid-19 social distancing measures. The country’s administrative responsibility is also serious because it failed to offer safety measures although it was estimated that over 100,000 would visit the neighborhood.

The largest responsibility goes to the negligence of the older generation who failed to protect the young. There is an old saying that no parent is capable of stopping a child, but it is humiliating to see the irresponsibility of the adults who had handed down a society of insecurity and chaos to the young generation. Halloween, a day to celebrate and share joy with neighbors, has been transformed into a drinking party for youngsters since 2000 as an exit. The change must have been fueled by the older generation’s greed.

Now is the time for the older generation to write their confessions. They must repent that they had failed to give a healthy, safe social system to the youngsters, just like a poem by Yun Dong-ju, who wrote: “In the blue rusted copper mirror / My face still remains / As it is a relic from a dynasty / is it so dishonored?”

The Yoon Suk-yeol administration faced its biggest crisis. It may not be directly responsible for the tragedy, but its ability will be judged by how it responds to it. It must put all efforts to heal the people’s wounds. Whether it is about the economy or national security, public sentiment matters. The government declared a national mourning period. I pray for peace for the victims and their families.
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