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South Korea: Itaewon Tragedy Will Test Yoon’s Leadership

October 31, 2022
By Victor D. Cha

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The tragic events of 29 October in the Itaewon neighborhood of Seoul, which claimed over 150 lives, will provide the sternest test yet of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s leadership. In the coming days, we expect that opposition parties will pursue the government with allegations of negligence and mishandling of the affair, while vigils for victims in the central Sejongno boulevard will also create pressure for explanations and accountability.

The central allegation is that authorities provided insufficient support to the area in terms of police and safety marshals, despite the annual festivities often drawing more than 100,000 people to the narrow alleyways of the popular nightlife district of the capital. It is also unclear if emergency services were able to respond promptly. In 2017, the government drew up guidelines for crowd management at public events involving 1,000 or more people, but these apply only to organized events like sports games and concerts and not to organic gatherings like Halloween celebrations.

The immediate comparison is to the fallout from the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking, in which 304 people died. The administration of then-president Park Geun-hye responded slowly to that disaster, and never really recovered from the loss of public trust that resulted. Park was later impeached and removed from office in December 2016 on separate corruption allegations.
However, Yoon’s initial response to Itaewon suggests that he has learned some of the lessons of his conservative predecessor’s mistakes. Yoon held an emergency meeting to coordinate the crisis response as events unfolded and visited the scene in person within hours, before speaking to the nation and declaring a one-week period of mourning.

He also set up a taskforce to investigate, designated the surrounding Yongsan district a disaster zone to allow for government assistance to flow, and the government is set to pay around USD 10,000 in funeral expenses for each victim. Yoon has been dogged by low public approval ratings for several months, but in the most recent poll prior to 29 October his support rose about 3 percentage points to 36%.

In the coming days, a key metric will be the government’s level of openness regarding the events and the investigation into them, including in testimony given at the National Assembly. It will be important for Yoon to continue to communicate directly with the public about the tragedy and discuss lapses in safety and security protocols. Meanwhile, other large-scale Halloween-themed events around the country have been canceled due to safety concerns, including at the Everland and Lotte World theme parks.

The views and opinions in these articles are solely of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Teneo. They are offered to stimulate thought and discussion and not as legal, financial, accounting, tax or other professional advice or counsel.

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