South Koreans Hold Subdued Halloween Celebrations a Year after Party Crush Killed about 160 People

Shin Hyun-woo/Yonhap via AP
South Korean Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min places flowers to pay his condolence to the victims of the Oct. 29, 2022 crush, in front of the messages for victims in Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Halloween celebrations in South Korea were subdued on the eve of the first anniversary of a harrowing crowd surge that killed about 160 people in a Seoul alleyway.

Many restaurants, bars, department stores and amusement parks avoided Halloween-themed events this year as a sign of respect for the victims. Few people clad in Halloween costumes were seen Saturday in Seoul’s popular Itaewon neighborhood, where revelers fell on each other like dominos as a large number of people crammed into the narrow, sloping alley.

Post-it notes with condolence messages such as “We won’t forget you forever” or “Sorry. Please, rest in peace” plastered the walls of the site. A mourning station established in central Seoul received many visitors, who laid white flowers and burned incense in front of photos of the victims.

“I think this kind of incident must never happen again. Our hearts are aching too much,” Choi Seul Gi, a 30-year-old office worker, said in Itaewon.

Bereaved families are to hold a formal memorial service on Sunday.

In Seoul’s Hongdae area, another entertainment zone, there were only a small number of people wearing Halloween outfits. There were no reports of any safety-related incidents across South Korea by early Sunday.

Authorities have deployed thousands of police, emergency and other officials since Friday for crowd control and safety of pedestrians in Itaewon and 15 other major nightlife districts in Seoul. About 200 police officers were separately mobilized to monitor narcotics use and violent crime, according to Seoul police.

In January, a police special investigation team concluded that police and municipal officials failed to work out effective crowd control steps despite correctly anticipating a huge number of people in Itaewon. Investigators also concluded that police had ignored hotline calls by pedestrians who warned of swelling crowds before the surge turned deadly.

The Itaewon crush caused a nationwide outpouring of grief as the dead were mostly in their 20s and 30s. There was also anger that the government again ignored safety and regulatory issues despite the lessons learned since the 2014 sinking of the ferry Sewol, which killed 304 people — mostly teenagers on a school trip.

“I offer a deep apology again by bearing the sorrow and heavy responsibility for the disaster in my heart,” Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said in a statement Friday. “The way to overcome the pains and sorrow of the disaster is preventing this kind of incident from happening again.”

Officials have tried to overhaul the country’s safety systems and response protocols since the Itaewon tragedy. But safety-related incidents have continuously occurred.

“First of all, the problem is that there have been only stopgap measures whenever some incidents happened,” said Park Sangin, a professor at Seoul National University. “Also, the bigger problem is that there has been no clear accountability for them.”

When police in January announced the results of the probe into the Itaewon crush, they said they were pursuing criminal charges, including involuntary manslaughter and negligence, against 23 officials. But no top-level official was included. Most of the 23 officials are still on trial.

In February, South Korea’s opposition-controlled parliament voted to impeach the safety minister, Lee Sang-min, over the Itaewon disaster. But the Constitutional Court in July overturned Lee’s impeachment.

Families of the victims and their supporters have demanded President Yoon Suk Yeol offer a more sincere apology and accept a through, independent investigation.

“The attitude by the government and the ruling party is inflicting deeper and more painful scars on (us),” the families said in a joint statement. “We just want to know the fundamental reasons why on Oct. 29, 2022, thousands of people fell, 159 of them died and thousands of others were injured or ended up living with trauma.”

The families said they invited Yoon to attend Sunday’s memorial. Local media reported Yoon decided not to go due to concerns the event could be politically used by his rivals.