SEOUL — Seo Hyuk-jun, 36, knelt in front of the white chrysanthemums, placing a lit cigarette, incense and a paper cup filled with Jack Daniels on the ground. He stood, knelt and bowed twice, performing a traditional Korean ritual for the dead.
Day after day, such tributes arrived at the makeshift memorial in Itaewon, one of Seoul’s most popular neighborhoods. Young South Koreans traveled there for its diversity and vibrant nightlife. They called it “Itaewon Freedom”.
Now the neighborhood has become a sobering monument to grief and soul-searching after more than 150 young people were killed during a crowd crush while celebrating Halloween last Saturday. Bars that buzzed with K-pop music just a week ago are now silent, their doors covered in messages of condolences and a notice from the local government asking people to refrain from loud music and dancing.
Like many South Koreans, Mr Seo said he did not feel guilty for being alive when so many young people were killed that night, their whole lives ahead of them. “For them, it was no ordinary Halloween. They were supposed to feel freedom after three years of pandemic hell,” Mr. Seo said, choking back tears. “I hope my cigarette and alcohol will ease their journey to the other world.”
Nowhere is this sense of mourning felt more than near Exit 1 of Itaewon Subway Station, once known as a bustling gateway to nightlife and entertainment. The alley where the crushing of the crowd occurred, near this exit, remained closed all week, crisscrossed with orange police tape. Police officers stood guard one recent evening, green batons in hand. Pedestrians sometimes knelt and bowed in mourning.
“People are still walking on the streets, cars are still driving, but I don’t hear any noise,” said Kim Hee-soo, 24, a store manager in Itaewon. “It’s like this place stopped dead. It’s not the Itaewon I’ve known.
Since the disaster, a strange sadness reigns in the neighborhood. Its streets and alleys, which usually never sleep, darken early in the evening. Many shops were closed and restaurants empty.
Outside a pork belly restaurant, a mourner left a lunch box of rice and kimchi, along with a bouquet of chrysanthemums – a traditional mourning flower in Korea – and a handwritten note: “My friend, I hope you will be in heaven, be happy and enjoy your youth, which ended so soon in this world.
Built long before Seoul had a city plan, Itaewon has always been something of an exception among South Koreans. Decades ago, American GIs stationed at a nearby military base would come to the neighborhood to drink and relax. Residents generally stayed away. After a while, the area gained a reputation as a place for foreigners. It also served as a vehicle for Western culture – rock ‘n’ roll and reggae music, exotic dishes and foreign fashion – at a time when South Korea was still a post-war developing nation.
Itaewon had to reinvent itself when the US military began moving to Camp Humphreys, a gigantic base south of Seoul, a decade ago. But even before that, in the late 1990s, young people were beginning to flock to its trendy bars and restaurants crammed into old buildings and narrow lanes. The neighborhood gained a new reputation as a place to escape the pressures of South Korean society, bound by Confucian hierarchies and conformist views.
“When I think of Itaewon, the words that come to mind are freedom, openness and diversity. You see foreigners here, you can experience foods from other cultures here,” said Byun Ji-sun, 25, a photographer having dinner with friends at one of the few remaining kebab restaurants in New York. Itaewon. “When young people say, ‘Let’s go to Itaewon’, we mean, ‘Let’s go clubbing and have fun.’ »
A popular song from 2011 honored the neighborhood’s iconoclasm: “It’s a new world out there, I tell you. There’s music out there, there’s love out there, there’s people out there,” the lyrics to “Itaewon Freedom.” “Kids go to amusement parks. Old people go to nursing homes. Kids go to kindergarten. But we’re going to Itaewon!
Conservative Koreans have long frowned upon Itaewon as a symbol of harmful foreign influence, including the annual Halloween festivities that have become one of the liveliest nights of the year. A Christian church has sparked a scandal by sending missionary trainees to proselytize in area transgender bars.
When a coronavirus outbreak appeared in Itaewon in 2020, disease control officials raided bars and restaurants, plastering the doors with signs declaring them prohibited. Businesses were forced to close due to lack of tourists. After the easing of coronavirus restrictions this year, Itaewon was just starting to look like his self.
Last Saturday, the first Halloween celebration since South Korea ended its pandemic rules, was to be something of a coming-out party. Crowds of young people overflowed from exit No. 1. Clubs and restaurants were ready to accommodate as many customers as they could handle. The narrow lane where the rush of crowds happened was a popular shortcut to many bars and clubs.
“I think every special effects makeup artist in the country had set up little booths along this street and applied bloody fake wounds that looked so real,” said Tami Overby, senior adviser at a global business strategy firm. who frequently visits Seoul from the United States and walked the main street of Itaewon last Saturday. “My last Halloween in Itaewon was in 2019, and the crowds weren’t nearly as big,” she said. “Never have I seen so many people in such a small space.”
Revelers swarmed the alley from both directions, creating deadly pressure. Few police were there to manage the crowds, even as the city expected a particularly large number of people in Itaewon for the Halloween weekend. Desperate calls to the police went unnoticed while the victims were trampled and choked.
As the government continues to investigate the tragedy – one of the worst peacetime disasters in South Korea’s history – a steady stream of people visited the makeshift altar built around the exit n ° 1. Buddhist monks prayed. Citizens lit candles and shared numerous handwritten notes, many of which were written by friends of victims whose childhood dreams ended too soon.
One was written by Baek Hyo-bin and addressed to her friend Yoon Je-yi: “I wish this was a long nightmare I could wake up from,” Ms. Baek wrote. “I was embarrassed when you were screaming in the street and making those weird expressions, but now I miss it all so painfully.”
Itaewon has been declared a “special disaster zone” since last Sunday. As Saturday night approached, there were signs that Itaewon was slowly coming back to life. Workers had swept floors and mopped tables after a week-long period of national mourning.
A candlelight vigil and protest calling on President Yoon Suk Yeol to take responsibility for the lack of crowd control in Itaewon last weekend was scheduled for Saturday night near Seoul City Hall.
“At this time of year, my shop is supposed to be full of customers,” Moon Myong-woo said, sitting in a leather goods shop his family has run for 30 years in Itaewon. “We thought business was finally coming back after the pandemic, but now we have this,” he said. “But I know I shouldn’t complain when I think of the victims and their families.”
Longtime residents of Itaewon were still struggling to understand the implications of the tragedy, wondering how it would affect the neighborhood’s image. Opposite Mr. Moon’s shop, Oh Soo-hee, a real estate agent, sat in her small office, her white dog at her feet. “How can we recover from this trauma? ” she says. “So many young people have died.”
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