Halloween Tragedy Is a Test for the World’s Most-Disliked Leader


A nightmarish disaster whose victims are predominantly the young. A right-of-center leader whose popularity is sliding. A political flashpoint potentially in the making once the nation absorbs the tragedy.  

It’s not hard to find echoes between the killing of more than 150 people crushed in a Halloween crowd surge in Seoul on Saturday, and the deaths of more than 300 people, mainly high-school students, in the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry. In both cases, officialdom failed the nation’s youth, resulting in tragic, avoidable events on a scale that is scarcely imaginable. The public will demand answers. 

The nation’s president at the time of the Sewol catastrophe, the disgraced and impeached Park Geun-hye, was for all her faults clearly not personally responsible for the sinking of the ferry, which was blamed on its operator overloading the vessel and the crew abandoning the passengers. 

But it was Park’s emotionally distant response to the accident that turned many against her, even before the corruption scandal that would later take her down. A key question during the investigation into her response was the mystery of her whereabouts for seven crucial hours after the incident, before she briefed the nation. 

While the incumbent Yoon Suk Yeol has moved quicker, declaring a period of mourning and forming an expansive task force to investigate, he has little margin for error. Even before the Halloween catastrophe, Yoon was the most-disliked leader in the world, with 72% saying they disapproved of him in a recent Morning Consult survey. Only the now-departed Liz Truss, the UK’s shortest-serving prime minister, ranked worse among countries polled. 

Tragedies resonate particularly keenly when, like in the stampede in Seoul’s Itaewon district, they involve the young. In 2001, the then-Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshiro Mori, was heavily criticized for continuing to play a round of golf after receiving news that a US nuclear submarine struck the fishing trawler Ehime Maru, a training ship which was carrying high-school students. Four of them died; the already deeply unpopular Mori was out of office less than two months later. 

Yoon could therefore do without remarks like that of his interior minister, Lee Sang-min, who told a briefing that the tragedy wasn’t a problem that could have been solved “by deploying police or firefighters in advance.” From the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster to the 2015 Hajj stampede, the underlying lesson of such tragedies tends to be that with sufficient planning they can almost always be avoided, whether through adequate presence by authorities, proactive policing to prevent bottlenecks or limiting access to dangerous areas. Many are now questioning whether the deployment of 137 police officers to the Itaewon celebrations, which attracted tens of thousands, was appropriate. 

In Tokyo — where another large tragedy was narrowly averted last year when an attacker dressed as the Joker attacked passengers on a train, injuring 17 — police have been cracking down on Halloween celebrations for some years. Even before the pandemic, they limited the extent of revelry in the Shibuya area which, like Itaewon, attracts thousands of young people in search of fun. 

Having initially leaned into the largely organic festivities that grew in Shibuya during the 2010s, Tokyo authorities began to take a sterner stance in 2019 after unruliness the year before. They asked stores not to sell alcohol, forbade drinking on the streets , and stationed hundreds of police and private security staff on street corners to prevent people from stopping in place. Japanese police have widely been ridiculed for their failure to prevent the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe in July, a botched protection job over which the nation’s chief of police resigned. The Seoul crush perhaps makes what many, including myself, had deemed over-zealousness in policing Shibuya seem prescient instead. 

There’s no suggestion it’s easy to avoid tragedies such as Saturday’s, particularly if authorities want to let people have freedom and fun. But what happened in Seoul is no natural disaster: Such events can and should be avoided. Yoon’s political future may depend on what he does next. 

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and the Koreas. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia, and was the Tokyo deputy bureau chief.

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