Seoul’s Itaewon group ponders future after crowd crush


SEOUL — As one among Seoul’s most various neighborhoods, Itaewon is a vacation spot for a seemingly limitless checklist of issues. Bustling nightlife. Foreigner- and LGBT-friendly companies. A dynamic meals scene. Quirky retailers lining its winding, hilly streets. And notably, the annual Halloween weekend celebration, when tens of 1000’s of Koreans and foreigners alike converge on the neighborhood to indicate off costumes and mingle.

However Saturday night time, the celebration turned lethal as a minimum of 156 folks died in a crowd crush, most of them younger folks. As questions swirl about whether or not the federal government didn’t adequately defend folks there, the tragedy has left residents, enterprise house owners and group members in Itaewon grappling with the enormity of loss on its streets, but in addition with tips on how to transfer ahead.

South Korea confronts the trauma of the Halloween crowd crush

“It just becomes part of this national identity,” James Chung, a Korean American who lives in Itaewon, stated of the tragedy, recalling different main incidents just like the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014 off South Korea’s southern coast, which left 304 useless, or the collapse of a division retailer in Seoul in 1995, which killed greater than 500.

“I hope it doesn’t — I mean, it will change [the neighborhood]. It already has,” stated Chung, 30, who works at a legislation agency. “I just don’t know to what extent, or what it’ll look like.” He in contrast the importance of Halloween weekend in Itaewon to the New Yr’s Eve ball drop in New York’s Instances Sq..

In latest days, public notion of the annual festivities has been distorted as simply a drunken occasion, whereas for some, it’s really “a very wholesome event,” stated James Davisson, 26, who frequents Itaewon and teaches English to defectors from North Korea. He was within the neighborhood Saturday night time along with his mother and father, visiting from america, however left earlier than the gang crush occurred. Most of his college students are the identical age because the folks killed within the crush, he stated, including that due to the pandemic, this yr was the primary for a lot of of his college students to attend and have fun. “For this to be their first experience” celebrating Halloween in Itaewon, Davisson stated, “it really broke my heart.”

Chung stated Saturday’s tragedy was “harder than just one outbreak, or a stabbing or something. It feels different.” An early outbreak of the coronavirus in Seoul occurred in Itaewon, main many in Korea — a largely homogenous, conservative society, to wrongly affiliate the neighborhood, foreigners and the homosexual group with the pandemic. There are fears {that a} related stigma will cloud the neighborhood following Saturday’s tragedy.

Through the pandemic, “there was this public persecution, like, ‘Avoid that area because nothing good comes of that area. Because of those dirty foreigners. Those dirty gays,’” said Linus Kim, a Korean American man who opened a barbecue restaurant in Itaewon in 2014. “We’re afraid of that persecution once more.”

“I’m actually terrified to say this out loud,” Kim stated, “but there’s a certain sentiment going around — the whispers are, ‘What’s going to happen to us?’”

Most companies in Itaewon have been closed the week after the crush, inspired to take action as President Yoon Suk-yeol declared a nationwide interval of mourning. “Victims of the Itaewon incident, we mourn for you,” was written in Korean on banners hung from streetlights within the space. Digital taxi shows learn in English, “Pray for Itaewon.”

Nonetheless, some companies remained open, with residents and staff nonetheless populating the realm. Kim determined to open his restaurant, Linus’ BBQ, on Tuesday after closing for 2 days within the wake of the tragedy. “People still have to eat,” he stated.

The kebab store throughout from the alley the place the crush occurred remained open, feeding the group into the early hours Sunday at the same time as physique baggage lined the road. On Tuesday afternoon, it was one of many solely institutions open on the block, and a mixture of Koreans and foreigners have been consuming there — trying on as mourners gathered throughout the road, and Buddhist monks led a chant, their wood devices audible from contained in the quiet, somber restaurant. Two males working there declined to remark as they assembled a gradual stream of orders.

Cakeshop, a well-liked nightclub on the west finish of Itaewon’s most important avenue, stated in an announcement posted on social media that it could be closed this week “out of respect” following the crush. “Our beautiful neighborhood has had a tragedy unfold that is truly indescribable,” it stated. “… So many young lives gone, should never have been this way.”

Lee Bu-yong, 69, has lived within the space for greater than 50 years. She stated the streets of the neighborhood felt “dark” — each actually and figuratively.

In 1994, her then-teenage daughter barely survived a bridge collapse in Seoul. The bus she was on had simply crossed the bridge earlier than it collapsed, she stated. That’s why Lee is aware of what went by means of the minds of each mother or father who had a baby in Itaewon final week, she stated.

“They were too young,” she stated of the useless.

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Kevin Kim, 28, runs a restaurant that doubles as a bar a quarter-mile from the catastrophe website. He’s haunted by the truth that dozens of younger girls have been killed. “Many of my cafe’s customers are young women,” he stated, together with on Saturday. He mused that a few of these prospects might have died later that night.

Now, Kim is bracing for a possible monetary catastrophe. He expects the streets of Itaewon to be quiet for the rest of the yr. That may make it tough to maintain up along with his store’s lease, which prices a number of thousand {dollars} each month, he stated.

Lee Sang-eun and his sister Lee Eun-sook are second-generation house owners of a framing retailer in Itaewon. The siblings — 54 and 51, respectively — have lived by means of a lot of South Korea’s fashionable peacetime tragedies, together with the 1995 division retailer collapse.

However the catastrophe in Itaewon hits too near residence, Lee Eun-sook stated. The useless included many of their 20s, the identical age group as her son, who’s serving in South Korea’s navy.

Regardless of expectations that the tragedy will depress incomes for small-store house owners within the space, Itaewon has been by means of worse, Lee Eun-sook stated. The coronavirus pandemic, by far the worst monetary catastrophe for retailers within the neighborhood, made them stronger, she stated.

Itaewon is “incredibly resilient,” Linus Kim stated. His restaurant “almost disappeared during covid,” he stated. If it weren’t for the help of the group, “we wouldn’t have made it.”

Karleta Peterson, an American DJ residing in Seoul, stated that whereas it was “too soon to say how” the Itaewon will grapple with the tragedy, “I have absolute utter faith in this community that we will move forward from this.”

Liana Weeks, one other American DJ who lives with Peterson within the Itaewon space, stated that as a substitute of being remembered as a spot of hazard and tragedy, Itaewon ought to be recognized for what it’s — a group and a protected house for a lot of, together with for Koreans. “It’s a place that certain Koreans come to find themselves and find home and find community and find love, where they otherwise don’t have love and acceptance,” she stated.

A Ok-drama, “Itaewon Class,” embraced the variety of the realm. The neighborhood was hailed within the music “Itaewon Freedom,” which Peterson stated “shows that Itaewon is a special place” the place Koreans can come to “just exist without feeling they have to appease anybody except themselves.”

“People need to know that this is a thriving, vibrant, loving, wonderful community that has provided safety for so many people,” Peterson stated. “And it will continue to be that way.”

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