Time for mourning and contemplation

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Time for mourning and contemplation

Yeh Young-june
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Many would have been surprised by the alarm sounds screaming from their mobile phones at hours most Koreans were readying to hit the bed last Saturday (Korea sends alarm warnings for disasters). Breaking news on the phone read 50 in Itaewon were in cardiac arrest, and that there were 81 emergency calls for breathing difficulties. The next message said President Yoon Suk-yeol has ordered swift rescue. At first, I wondered if there had been a terrorist act of an exploding poisonous gas bomb. But later TV news flashed surreal scenes that could have come from a disaster movie. It was hard to believe a fatal crowd crush had taken place in downtown Seoul. It was as unbelievable as if a war had broken out.

To be a city reporter in the 1990s was hectic in Korea. A bridge connecting the north and south of Seoul came down, followed by the collapse of a department store in a posh neighborhood in Seoul, and a fire in a subway construction site. Korea had a rude awakening on the consequences of speedy industrialization that neglected the importance of safety.

South Korea has joined the developed category in economic scale, yet shaming disasters have not stopped. The sinking of the Sewol ferry that drowned hundreds of students on a field trip in 2014 enraged and shamed the country once again. Despite a solemn pledge not to repeat man-made disasters, tragic deaths have continued. The death of a female worker at a giant bakery company’s factory underscored that safety negligence could be as rampant in factory sites as in the 1970s.

The Itaewon tragedy has once again raised awareness that Korea has yet to reach the maturity of a developed society. Accidents can happen at any place any time in the world. Preventing them is God’s work. But what men can do is to restrain them as much as possible and lessen the damage as much as possible.
President Yoon Suk-yeol and government ministers on Tuesday pay their respects after 156 people died in a fatal crowd crush in Itaewon on Saturday. [JOINT PRESS CORPS] 

What Interior Minister Lee Sang-min cannot be appropriate. He said, “Pre-deployment of fire fighters and police could not have solved the problem in this case.” He was suggesting that increasing police beyond the usual number for the Halloween weekend night could not have prevented the horrific incident in Itaewon. But such a comment must not come from a minister in charge of public safety. There is a big difference between doing the utmost to ensure public safety and not.

The number of police officers itself is less of an issue. If police had interfered to guide crowds in advance based on past parades and practices to keep narrow alleys and roads to one way to prevent over-traffic, such massive deaths could have been averted. The narrow backstreet alleyway in Itaewon already had little room to move hours before the deadly crush killed 156. Police could have seen the extraordinary swarm in the alley through CCTV. Yet they had not stepped in to stop the human traffic or guide the crowds.

The Democratic Party (DP) has also acted poorly by using the national tragedy for political gains. The liberal front, which successfully retook the ruling power by highlighting the past conservative government’s slack response to the Sewol ferry tragedy, will attack the government and ruling power as soon as the weeklong mourning period ends. A senior member of the DP blamed President Yoon Suk-yeol’s relocation of the presidential office to Yongsan partly for the disaster of Itaewon, which is in the same district. If Yoon had not summoned an emergency meeting early, he could have been questioned like former conservative president Park Geun-hye for her absence of 7 hours during the Sewol sinking.

Politics must stop during a national disaster. The government, politicians and all adults must join in prayer. The country also must deeply ruminate why it has yet to build a safe nation despite the tragic losses from Sewol ferry tragedy.
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