Itaewon Tragedy Sparks Fears About Overcrowding in Korea

  • By Kim Su-kyung

    November 03, 2022 11:26

    Packed subways and buses are nothing new to rush-hour commuters in Seoul, one of Asia's biggest cities, but safety experts point out that any space where more than five people per square meter are gathered can be dangerous.
    Even a small push can then force a group to topple over and cause injuries. In crammed subways and buses that transport commuters from Seoul to their dormitory towns, this risk is a constant reality, and conditions get even more cramped in winter when commuters are wearing thick clothes.
    "There are times when I have to get off the subway before reaching my stop to catch a breath," said one commuter.
    A total of 1.25 million people commute between Seoul and surrounding Gyeonggi Province every day. But it was not until the fatal stampede in Itaewon this Halloween weekend killed at least 156 people that many people truly became aware of the dangers.
    When police, Itaewon shopkeepers and Yongsan district officials met a few days before the Halloween weekend, they worried only about vehicle traffic and littering.
    But last Saturday, the loss of lives escalated as hundreds of people converged on an alley measuring just 18.24 sq.m and ended up falling on each other. The crowd density is estimated to have surpassed 16 people per square meter at one point.
    Gong Ha-seong at Woosuk University said, "We see packed subways every day, so people are used to dense crowds, but we need to realize that sudden crowd surges can happen anywhere and could be disastrous."
    Large crowds also gather at sports games and protest rallies every weekend in downtown Seoul as well as amusement parks and shopping districts. According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, there were more than 70 festivals across Korea in recent years that drew more than 100,000 people, rising to over 100 if unofficial events like the recent Halloween celebrations are included. But a lack of a comprehensive manual to control huge crowds at such events is worrisome.
    Many people are now saying they feel jittery about going to crowded places. One safety expert in the U.S. pointed out that one of the causes of the Itaewon tragedy was the fact that Koreans have grown used to being packed like sardines and were unable to detect the danger signs. Now the country is paying the price.
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