Around 60 students gathered on the Diag Tuesday evening to express grief for the victims and survivors of the Oct. 29 crowd crush in the Itaewon district of Seoul, South Korea. Attendees gathered in front of Hatcher Graduate Library holding chrysanthemums, as is customary in Korean funerary traditions, while candles illuminated the speakers.
Rackham student Dongkyu Yeom said the idea for the memorial came from a small group of student translators, including himself, who wanted to bring the campus community together after hearing about the crowd crush.
“We first started as a group of three people, as (translators) for one of the Marxist texts in South Korea,” Yeom said. “But as you might have heard here, we came across the news that there were so many people (that) died in Itaewon. That’s how we came to think, ‘Maybe we should do something’.”
Prior to the event, a group of University of Michigan students wrote a statement highlighting student concerns about how the South Korean government will address the lasting impacts of the crush.
The statement included context surrounding the disaster in Itaewon, highlighting a lack of police force mobilization to manage the crowd. Yoem and other students wrote that the politics of South Korea are unable to eradicate structurally reproduced death in incidents like the festival in Itaewon. The statement also claimed the South Korean government is not taking responsibility for the disaster and included quotes from Park Hee-young, the chief of Itaewon’s Yongsan District.
“The Halloween festival is not actually a legally recognized ‘festival’ for which the local government should be in charge,” Hee-young said, according to the statement. “It is just a phenomenon that doesn’t have any defined agenda or organizer.”
As of Nov. 29, 403 people have signed the statement.
“In the face of recurring death, the politics of Korea are incompetent,” the statement reads. “We mourn together for the victims of the Halloween tragedy, and we will take collective steps to alleviate the suffering caused by this tragedy. At the same time, we express our rage against the Ministry of the Interior and Safety and its (managing) institution, which are responsible for the tragedy.”
In his speech at the memorial, Yeom, the primary author of the statement said he sought to mobilize the crowd to take action in their own communities.
“Some may want to become a journalist to inform the public of recurring tragedies in their communities, and some may want to become a rescue worker, or doctors, police officers, artists,” Yeom said.
U-M alum Minyoung Song also spoke to the crowd on Tuesday night, emphasizing that these deaths were preventable and calling on the South Korean government to address the underlying conditions that led to the crush.
“Repeated social catastrophes are not glitches in the society; they are symptoms of the society,” Song said. “What has been suppressed or without correction always comes back and kills people over and over again. We need to surgically remove the causes of the symptoms — we know what and who they are.”
Song is a member of Sewol Michigan, a student organization focused on remembering the 304 people killed in the Sewol Ferry Disaster in 2014. Many members of the group attended Tuesday’s memorial to stand in solidarity with the organizers of the event and express their frustration with the recurrence of mass tragedies in South Korea.
After the event, Song told The Michigan Daily she feels the Halloween crowd crush and the Sewol Ferry Disaster are two results of the same root problem in Korean society: a lack of preventative work by the South Korean government.
“The same problem hasn’t been solved yet, and the same type of social disaster happened again,” Song said. “It’s been repeated and more and more people die, especially those young ones.”
U-M alum Mel Yang said the most impactful part of the event for her was when a Chinese student, who spoke when the podium opened up to attendees, discussed the importance of democracy and played “Marching For Our Beloved,” a song used in protest throughout many East Asian countries.
“I know for Chinese people, it is extremely dangerous to speak out about democratic movements in public,” Yang said. “I just thought that that really meant something — that we’re here not to just mourn what is happening in South Korea … but all over the world.”
Yang said hearing “Marching for Our Beloved” gave her a sense of hope that South Korea is not alone in its grief.
“That song is played again and again all over East Asia, including Burma (Myanmar), Indonesia, Hong Kong and China,” Yang said. “I just thought that it really meant something. We’re here. It’s more than just about what is happening in South Korea, but also relates to happenings all over East Asia and the world.”
Daily Staff Reporter Rachel Mintz and Daily News Contributors Mary Corey and Jamie Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.