​Itaewon tragedy touches many across borders

By Mitchell Blatt
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, November 1, 2022
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Flowers are offered for victims of a deadly stampede at Itaewon, a district in Seoul, South Korea, on Nov. 1, 2022. [Photo/cfp.cn]

I could have been there.

I could have been among the mass of people crowded in Itaewon Alley 27.

The young adults, mostly in their 20s, were pushed together body-to-body in the narrow road surrounded by bars and nightclubs. Hundreds and hundreds of people out to celebrate Halloween for the first time since South Korea ended its coronavirus curfew were trying to access the same bar street. They were pressed together. They were unable to move. They panicked. In the ensuing crush, over 150 people were killed.

When I watched the videos, I saw neon lights over familiar storefronts. A warning icon on Google Maps indicates a location I have been to often. A couple of friends from overseas messaged me and asked if I was safe. I messaged a couple of my friends who live in Seoul and might have been out. They are safe.

But this is the worst tragedy in South Korea in eight years. It was the 10th-worst crowd crush incident in the world in the 21st century. It hits close to home for me because Itaewon was a frequent gathering place for me when I lived in the Seoul area. It is for many – maybe even most – young adults in Seoul.

Among the dead were people from more than a dozen countries, including five Iranians, four Chinese, four Russians, two Americans, and two Japanese. 

Itaewon is an international haven. There you will see Mexican tacos, Turkish kabobs, South African braais (barbecue), hot Nashville chicken sandwiches, and Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese restaurants. International students stay out all night. Foreign teachers try to release their stress. Long-time expats get their clothes fitted at a tailor. South Koreans practice their English.

Memories come rushing back. Dancing on the rooftop bar of Casa Corona while a South Korean guy poured tequila down my throat straight from the bottle. Eating spicy chicken feet with her at the end of the summer, she reminiscing about how Itaewon was when she was younger. Walking down that street a few times during the height of the pandemic restrictions, thinking, "It's too empty…"

I've seen it crowded before. You've got to be prepared to wait a while for a table at most restaurants during the dinner rush. But never anything like what I saw in photos and videos of Saturday night. 

South Korea has responded by declaring the coming week a period of mourning. Bars have canceled their Halloween events scheduled for Sunday and Monday night. 

Seoul Community Radio released a statement: "It's difficult to comprehend the nature of what happened on Saturday. Itaewon is so intertwined with our station's DNA that this tragedy feels like a personal loss. Our hearts go out to all those affected."

The government set up a hotline to call to inquire about the status of missing persons.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol on Sunday announced a period of national mourning over the tragedy, and Prime Minister Han Duk-soo said later that the mourning would run until Saturday.

Mitchell Blatt is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:


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