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[From the Scene] Police clashes, political drama at memorial for Seoul crowd crush victims

Feb. 5, 2023 - 18:50 By Kim Arin
A father cries before the portrait of his late son on the memorial altar set up outside Seoul City Hall on Saturday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

In Seoul’s central Gwanghwamun, a memorial event was held over the weekend to mark 100 days since the Halloween crowd crush in Itaewon on Oct. 29 last year.

Saturday’s event, meant to be a time for remembering victims of the disaster, was quickly marred by altercations with police and politicians using the occasion to push their own agenda.

At least one family member of a victim was rushed to the hospital at around 2 p.m. after collapsing during a standoff with police. Squads of police pushed through the crowd in attempts to stop a memorial altar from being set up outside the City Hall library.

As police confronted the families, some among the crowd shouted protests, “Where were you when kids were dying in Itaewon?” and “Stop pushing.”

“Look at these streets filled with police officers. They should have been in Itaewon on Oct. 29, 2022,” said Lee Jeong-min, chair of the minor Justice Party, speaking at the event. The National Assembly investigation that closed last month found that police were not there for crowd management or public safety on the night of the disaster.

The clash with law enforcement authorities took place despite the event having been reported to the district’s police in advance, in accordance with the law on public assemblies.

Police officers push through the crowd at the memorial event in Gwanghwamun on Saturday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

Soon after the altar was installed, the Seoul metropolitan office gave the families two days’ notice to remove it by Tuesday. The Seoul office also rejected the families’ request to hold the memorial event at the spacious and car-free Gwanghwamun Square, forcing them to the boulevard south of the square instead.

For three months, the families had grieved their lost loved ones at a memorial altar installed near the site of the disaster in Itaewon.

The families decided to move the altar to Gwanghwamun -- which hosts rallies and marches regularly amid government ministry buildings, City Hall and the former presidential office Cheong Wa Dae -- as a way of protecting businesses in Itaewon that have been suffering with fewer visitors.

A banner of Rep. Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, is seen near Saturday’s memorial event for the victims of the crowd disaster on Oct. 22, 2022, in Itaewon. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

Many in the crowd at the memorial event were wearing blue to show their allegiance to the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, blaming the Yoon Suk Yeol administration for failing to protect the young people.

They waved flags showing their affiliation with the party and chanted for Yoon’s impeachment. Blue balloons and signs reading “Yoon Suk Yeol, resign in honor of the victims” and “Jail (first lady) Kim Keon-hee” were distributed at the site.

Across the street from the memorial event, the Democratic Party staged a rally against Yoon with its entire leadership in attendance. The leaders took turns denouncing the ongoing criminal investigations into its Chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung as indicative of the president’s “dictatorship.”

“I was just over there at the service for Itaewon disaster victims, and I witnessed our country’s failure to explain all these young deaths,” said the party’s Floor Leader Rep. Park Hong-keun. “Who’s to blame? It’s President Yoon and his incompetence and self-righteousness.”

Park promised he would “without fail” have the first lady investigated and called on the crowd to “stand with Lee Jae-myung against Yoon.”

“This sea of blue tells me there is hope for democracy in our country, which once fought military dictatorships with candles,” said Lee, who is caught up in a corruption scandal and due to appear before prosecutors for the third time later this month.

“Together with the great people of this country, I warn Yoon Suk Yeol and his dictatorial government: You can destroy Lee Jae-myung but not our democracy.”

The flags and placards held by attendants showed their affiliation to Democratic Party regional committees from all over the country as well as organizers of past protests including Boycott Japan and Candlelight Action, one of the groups behind a series of “impeach Yoon” rallies.

A father wipes the framed portrait of his son on the memorial altar installed outside Seoul City Hall on Saturday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

As the rally turned into a political show, the tears and sobs did not stop near the altar a few hundred meters away. The hurriedly built an altar that displayed framed portraits of victims. The family members, mostly parents, were comforted by parents of the victims of another national tragedy -- the sinking of the Sewol ferry in April 2014.

“Nothing has changed since Sewol,” said Jang Dong-won, the father of a survivor of the sinking. “It’s heartbreaking to watch the same things hurt the victims of a terrible tragedy so many years later.”

On Sunday, parliamentary Speaker Kim Jin-pyo and the leaders of both parties, Reps. Chung Jin-suk and Lee Jae-myung, commemorated the victims of the Itaewon crowd disaster in a rare ceremony held at the National Assembly.

Kim said in his address that the ruling and the opposition parties “have come together with a determination not to repeat such a tragedy and to remember the fallen.”

Families, friends and mourners line up to lay flowers for the victims of the Itaewon disaster at the conference hall of a National Assembly building on Sunday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

Speaking at Sunday’s ceremony, Lee Jong-chul, the father of the late Lee Ji-han, a 24-year-old actor who lost his life in the crush, pleaded for keeping the memorial altar in place at Gwanghwamun.

“We just want to mourn our children, with lots and lots of flowers,” he said, choking up.

On Oct. 29, 2022, crowds of people crammed into a narrow alleyway in Itaewon, a Seoul neighborhood known for its international cuisine and nightlife. Under the crush of the crowd, 159 died, most of them in their 20s and 30s.