SEOUL, South Korea — Ushered by guides donning black ribbons, Ahn Soon Yi, 86, and her husband walked the semicircular path around Seoul Plaza. Then they placed white chrysanthemums on a memorial altar for the 156 mostly young victims of the Halloween crowd crush, and wrote condolences for scores of people who had departed this life decades too soon.
Afterward, Ahn sobbed into a handkerchief and fell to the ground: Her own granddaughter was the same age as many who had died.
“How can this keep happening in this country?” she said on Friday, referring to a 1999 fire at a Hwasong youth camp in which 23 children died. Older generations, she said, failed them like they failed the costumed partygoers on Oct. 29. “Why couldn’t the police have gotten there sooner?”
South Koreans across the country are asking the same questions. This year’s Halloween celebration in Seoul’s nightlife district of Itaewon drew a crowd of 100,000 revelers yet only 137 police officers, resulting in one of the worst peacetime disasters in the country’s history.
Soon after the disaster, President Yoon Suk Yeol declared a one-week period of national mourning as authorities scrambled to explain what happened. Throughout South Korea, thousands of people paid their respects at designated memorial sites in 17 cities.
Many expressed similar reasons for attending. Millennials and Generation Zers cited the sense that “it could have been me or my friends.” Those a generation older empathized with the victims’ parents. Across ages, people shared disappointment that adults could not protect the children.
South Korea has been wrestling with shock, grief and, as the days progress, anger. The release of transcripts of calls to police asking for help and warning of peril hours before the crush, and the Yoon government’s use of the word “accident” instead of “disaster” and “decedent” instead of “victim” added to frustrations with the government.
On Friday, a bereaved mother whose son died in Itaewon visited the altar at Seoul’s City Hall, tearing down the flowers sent by Yoon and yelling, “Why did you send flowers without protecting them?” as she was pulled away by police.
One week after the Itaewon disaster, as the official mourning period drew to a close, tens of thousands of Koreans gathered at an evening vigil at City Hall to memorialize the victims and protest the Yoon government, holding signs saying, “The citizens are dead. Is this me?” and “Yoon Suk Yeol step down.”
Earlier in the day, hundreds of young people had organized a protest in Itaewon, carrying signs saying, “At 6:34 the country was not there [for the victims],” referring to the time the first panicked call was made to the police before the fatalities occurred.
On Monday, Yoon apologized for the crowd crush, vowing to improve police and safety management systems and hold accountable anyone found responsible.
The anti-Yoon protests have been going on for weeks with a heavy police presence, including the night of the Halloween crush, which has also angered critics, as has Yoon’s move out of the official presidential residence into a luxury apartment building. The move has increased his Itaewon-based security detail to about 700 officers.
Yoon’s new home is the site of the former Sampoong Department Store, which collapsed in 1995, killing more than 500 people and injuring more than 900. There is no major public memorial at the site.
“The Korean government has a long history of censoring, erasing and misremembering any event that might be considered shameful,” said Areum Jeong, author of an upcoming book on the aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster. “Creating a memorial would be admitting that there is something to document.”
More than 100 of those killed in the Halloween crush were in their 20s, a generation marked by the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, which killed more than 300 high school students. The tragedy marked the beginning of the end for the last right-wing president, Park Geun-hye.
At the time, Busan resident Park Yun Eun, 20, was in sixth grade.
“I saw this horrible [Sewol] accident happen, and it was also under a conservative administration. To grow up watching that, and seeing this, it reaffirms my belief that no matter what we do, no matter how much we call the police … they’re not going to take care of us, they’re not going to save our lives,” she said.
Within the last century, Korea has emerged from Japanese colonialism, the Korean War, military dictatorships and a struggle for democracy, transforming itself into the world’s 10th-largest economy. As a result, the whiplash-inducing pace of change can wallpaper over generational trauma, experts say, which resurfaces when an event that seems preventable occurs.
“Koreans tend to force themselves to go on with their lives,” Jeong said. “People deal with such trauma by attending memorials or protests, posting condolences on social media and creating and viewing art that commemorates the victims.”
Some worried that the government seemed to have forced the country into mourning before the incident had been fully investigated.
Kang Hye-Won, a Seoul-based cultural critic, said that declaring a memorial week the day after the disaster, as the bodies were still being recovered and identified, seemed too soon.
“People are afraid the government will not properly figure out why it happened and what to improve after the disaster,” Kang said. “People are in deep sorrow, but at the same time they’re afraid that maybe things won’t change.”
Jean Kim, a Korean American psychiatrist who has treated post-traumatic stress disorder, said that collective trauma can occur after long-term events, like a war or occupation, as well as after acute, short-term ones like the Itaewon tragedy, layering levels of grief.
In addition, the barrage of images and videos on social media can aggravate the PTSD symptom of abnormal memory processing in which an event gets replayed over and over and sets off panic, flashbacks and nightmares, Kim said.
“While it is important to look at what could be done differently for future safety, trauma also may set off unhealthy rumination, self-berating (such as survivor guilt) and anger,” she said.
Mental health services and counseling sessions are being offered at some universities, but many aren’t sure that Koreans would use them, since mental health treatments still carry some stigma.
Asked what would help her generation heal, Park said, “We grew up realizing that Sewol was dealt with in a terrible way. I don’t even know how to deal with that trauma, which was eight years ago. Now 156 deaths of people my age, I do not know how to deal with that. I don’t know how to be angry. I don’t know how to speak out against what’s happening. That’s the biggest problem with our generation right now, we don’t know how to think. It’s really sad.”