The Tragedy in Itaewon: the Pandemic’s Effects on the Young Generations

By Christine Kim

In the past two years, a total of 336 young people have lost their lives in tragic events caused by an uncontrollable crowd. From concerts, to clubs, to parties, young people have gathered post-COVID to have a good time, but the events ended in chaos and death. A recent stampede in South Korea’s Itaewon, a popular party district in Seoul, is another statistic in a growing list of events characterized by post-COVID crowd frenzy. 

South Korea has a major party culture despite the country’s conservative foundation. A record number of people gathered at Itaewon to celebrate Halloween on Saturday, October 29, and tragically, 156 people died. Although Itaewon has always been a popular district for clubs and parties, the streets were exceptionally crowded on this particular weekend. This was likely the case because South Korea started to loosen its strict COVID regulations, and many young people saw the Halloween celebration as a chance to release their frustration and stress due to the pandemic.

The pandemic took away opportunities for teenagers and young people to have fun before growing older, which, in contemporary Korean culture, is considered an essential rite of passage. As a result of lockdown and strict regulations that continued even after the pandemic, many young people are experiencing constant anger, resentment, and stress. The important cultural marker to go out and have fun was taken away for almost two years. The result is not just an increase in people at clubs, but people not caring about those around them as they try to relieve their own stress. People may choose to not exercise this new freedom if it continues to be dangerous and result in a preventable tragedy like at Itaewon. 

People are blaming the police for lack of action and inability to contain the situation. The police estimated that roughly 100,000 people would be on the narrow streets of Itaewon, but many said that the crowd was bigger than expected. Eyewitnesses have condemned the police for failing to control the crowd by taking immediate action. Hong Ki-Hyun, the chief of the agency’s Public Order Management Bureau, expressed regret about the police’s judgment on large crowd control.  

Besides the lack of proper judgment and inaction by the police, people are angered that South Korea lost many young lives. Middle school, high school, and college students say that they do not feel protected and that they do not know when they might die. After all, Halloween at Itaewon was meant to be a celebration of youth. No one knew it would become one of the nation’s worst disasters. 

The incident at Itaewon also brings back memories of the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, when 304 of the 476 passengers tragically drowned, and 250 of them were high school students on a school trip. The country took a long time to heal, especially the families and friends of the young students. Not unlike the response to the Itaewon tragedy, people blamed authorities and claimed that the incident could have been prevented. The public felt that the older generation failed the young people, a generation who had bright futures ahead of them.

Now, eight years later, South Korea is faced with another tragedy that could have been prevented. The behavior shown during the Itaewon incident was not only exhibited in Korea, but also around the world as there has been a global rise in crowd-related disasters. These events reveal the consequences of the pent-up frustration and anger caused by the pandemic and the unpreparedness of the authorities to respond to large crowds of individuals who have been, essentially, locked up for two years. 

As a teenager who was forced to stay inside for almost a year and a half, I can understand why so many people are behaving this way. I was unable to meet friends or participate in any social activities like parties, which are the right of the young. When COVID regulations loosened, I was immediately pushed into Senior year and college applications. I lost the two years in which I could have had fun before seriously focusing on my future.

No one can justify the 156 deaths in Itaewon, yet it is not a surprise that the crowd behaved in a way that led to this horrific incident. People were angry because they were isolated from the world for nearly two years, and even more frustrated because of strict COVID regulations that continued to prevent them from socializing with others. The Itaewon tragedy, as well as many other crowd-related disasters, serves to demonstrate the dehumanization of people as a consequence of the pandemic. If you are going to lock people up in the name of health, then every aspect of health needs to be considered, which includes mental health. The events of Itaewon and other places show that while we may have prevented more COVID cases, we have increased rising mental health issues in the youth and therefore, may have increased global violence. But perhaps only the future will tell if leaders in Korea and around the world made the right call.