South Korea faces public outrage over safety control after deadly Halloween stampede

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The initial shock from a deadly crush among Halloween party-goers in South Korea is turning into public outrage over the government’s planning missteps, as business owners say police were more focused on crime and COVID-19 than crowd safety.

The crush on Saturday night killed 156 and injured 152 as revelers flooded narrow alleyways. Experts blamed a lack of adequate crowd and traffic control for aggravating the surge: Police dispatched just 137 officers to the area despite estimating as many as 100,000 people would gather that night in the popular nightlife district of Itaewon.

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The disaster that followed has angered many South Koreans.

“It’s no different from war,” said Kang Sung-jun, 76, who was mourning the victims at a makeshift altar on Tuesday. “I think if people with responsibilities had paid more attention to the people’s movements, this kind of accident would not have happened.”

Yoon Hee-keun, chief of the National Police Agency, apologized on Tuesday and pledged to investigate.

“We confirmed that there were multiple calls to our hotline before the accident which urgently warned of the danger of large crowd gatherings, but our on-site responses to those reports were insufficient,” Yoon told a news conference.

South Korean authorities have a long history of managing large political rallies, but the annual festivities in Itaewon in Seoul did not have a central steering entity.

Business owners in the neighborhood have said they met with local police officials before the festivities, but officers were mostly focused on curbing drug and sexual abuses and other crimes, as well as the spread of COVID-19.

Oh Seung-jin, a Seoul police official, acknowledged on Monday that authorities did not have a manual on how to respond to large gatherings without an organizer, and had focused on crime prevention.

Interior Minister Lee Sang-min has fueled public anger by saying more police and firefighters would not have prevented the disaster, and warning against politically motivated criticism.

Opposition lawmakers slammed Lee’s remarks, urging President Yoon Suk-yeol to sack him.

Lee apologized on Tuesday, vowing to find out the cause of the incident and prevent similar cases from recurring.

“As the minister overseeing the safety of the public, I express sincere apologies over the incident,” Lee said, adding that the government had “limitless responsibility over the safety of our people” as he addressed a parliamentary session televised live.

The deadly crush poses a crucial test for Yoon, who is already struggling with low approval ratings as he tries to fuel a post-COVID-19 economic recovery and deal with North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.

Botched disaster responses have proven politically fatal for other South Korean leaders, and Yoon took heat in August for his initial handling of flooding around the country.

Yoon reacted relatively quickly to the crush, visiting the scene, launching a task force team to investigate the accident and designating Itaewon as a disaster zone. He on Tuesday called for concrete crowd management measures.

Many South Koreans said they were in shock over how a casual night out had turned deadly.

“I’m devastated. They were going to see their friends for a good time, but instead, their warm hearts disappeared. I am so sad that I can’t even express my sorrow,” Kim Keun-nyeo, 54, said an altar near Seoul city hall.

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