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Political trauma of Sewol disaster haunts government response to Itaewon

Halloween tragedy becomes a major challenge for Yoon government, reminiscent of political fallout from 2014 ferry sinking

Civic groups call on the president to apologize over Halloween tragedy in Itaewon and slam the police report focusing on the political impact of the event outside the War Memorial of Korea, Yongsan in Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap)
Civic groups call on the president to apologize over Halloween tragedy in Itaewon and slam the police report focusing on the political impact of the event outside the War Memorial of Korea, Yongsan in Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap)

As South Korea searches for answers to why 156 people died in an Itaewon alley on Oct. 29, a sensitive question is lingering in the minds of some politicians – particularly those on the right.

"Could this turn into a political debacle like Sewol?"

The sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014 resulted in the death of 304 people, most of them high school students. When it happened, the Park Geun-hye administration faced a massive public outcry over its slow and botched response to the disaster. Park was later impeached by parliament on multiple grounds, including for abuse of power and a failure to protect the citizens as president.

For Yoon Suk-yeol, the first conservative president after Park’s fall, the Itaewon disaster comes at a difficult time. Just months into his presidency, he has already faced accusations of incompetence, with approval ratings currently hovering around 30 percent.

But President Yoon’s response was swift, likely thanks to the lessons from the Sewol ferry disaster, said Professor Lee Jun-han at the Department of Political Science and International Studies at Incheon National University.

“In the case of the Itaewon disaster, acknowledgements came quicker – releasing the transcripts of emergency calls or the interior minister’s flip-flop,” he said, referring to Interior Minister Lee Sang-min’s apology for saying the number of people in Itaewon was “not worryingly high in particular.”

But for an unpopular president in his first year, how the government responds to the deadly crowd crush will pose a “major political challenge,” the scholar noted.

Political analyst Youn Tae-gon said the Yoon government will be very cautious with its response to the tragedy after the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014.

“If (the government’s cautious approach) turns out positively, it will be reaching out to the victims and the public with more sensitivity,” he said. If it is done poorly, the government might take an aggressive or a defensive approach, he added.

“So far, it seemd they have been defensive in their approach,” he said.

While resisting calls from opposition lawmakers to offer a public apology over what happened, Yoon has visited a funeral altar of the victims to pay his respects every day since Monday.

“Incident” or “disaster”?

What to call the tragic event and those who died from it has also become a political issue, with opposition lawmakers calling for the use of the words “disaster” and “victims” at memorial alters. The Ministry of the Interior and Safety explained on Wednesday that it first ordered local governments to use the words “incident” and “deceased” at memorial alters to avoid “perpetuating a negative image” of the neighborhood.

On Wednesday, wording used on a banner at a memorial altar set up in Gwangju was changed from “the deceased of the Itaewon incident” to “victims of the Itaewon disaster.”

Areum Jeong, a researcher who is writing a book on the aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster, said that by choosing certain words, the government is downplaying its culpability.

“By avoiding terms such as “disaster” and “victims,” the government is trying to reduce what the disaster really is and avoid responsibility. And without properly using the correct language, the people cannot mourn."

While cautious about linking the two events as the investigations are still ongoing, Jeong said there certainly is a parallel in how both disasters took place.

“Like the Sewol (ferry sinking), the disaster in Itaewon was something that could have happened to anyone. The younger generation has witnessed once again that the nation will not prioritize the people’s safety,” she said.

“Unless the government takes responsibility, offers sincere condolences, and prioritizes public safety to prevent future disasters, the people will continue to talk and question the systemic causes and failures that brought about the Itaewon disaster,” she added.

'Wary of potential political impact'

In an internal police report obtained by TV network SBS, the National Police Agency described the Itaewon tragedy as the biggest disaster since the Sewol ferry sinking. The report warned that some “progressive-leaning groups could call for the government to resign” if there are growing calls to hold the government accountable.

It also highlights how politically damaging the handling of the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014 was for the previous conservative Park Geun-hye government.

It also warned that women’s rights groups could use the gender ratio of the victims – 101 out of the 156 confirmed dead were women – to criticize the government’s plans to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

Kwon Soo-hyun, the head of the Korea Women’s Political Solidarity, said the report makes it seem like police are treating the incident “politically.”

“With the position of the National Police Agency weakened under the Yoon administration, the report looks as though police are trying to impress the government,” she said.

Earlier this year, the Interior Ministry formed a new bureau to supervise the law enforcement agency, despite backlash from police officers.

Yoon’s approval ratings reached 35 percent for the first time in four weeks in the latest Realmeter poll, which was conducted before the Itaewon crowd crush on Saturday.



By Yim Hyun-su (hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)
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