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Itaewon survivors seek legal aid alone

SEOUL (ANN/THE KOREA HERALD) – Grieving families and survivors of the tragic Itaewon crowd crush in Seoul, which claimed the lives of 159 people due to severe overcrowding on October 29, 2022, express their poignant ordeal of coping with their loss without adequate government support.

Choi Joung-joo, who lost her daughter Yu-jin in the incident, shared his heart-wrenching experience.

“My wife wanted to get therapy after our daughter passed, so she made a call to our district office to seek help because that’s what we were told to do,” said Choi. “But it felt like they didn’t know how they were supposed to help her. She even had someone ask her, ‘So what do you want us to do?’”

Choi and his wife were eventually forced to look for their own source of mental health support.

Gia Shin, a university student who escaped from the crowd before falling victim to the accident, also had to fend for herself.

“I went on a mental health online platform which matched me with various therapists. I felt like it was the best option for me at the time because therapy is quite inaccessible in Korea,” Shin said.

“But this service was not helpful for me, as the therapists on it didn’t seem to know about the tragedy and Korea well.”

Shin ended up having to talk with those around her and friends who shared her experience.

“While I was lucky enough to have family, a partner and friends in Korea to console me, I still feel a lot of survivor’s guilt,” she said.

Lee Joo-hyun, another survivor of the crowd crush, said she was tired of constantly having to prove that she was present at the scene of the disaster and that she was also a victim.

Lee injured her knee last year and had to present payment records to prove that she injured it at the scene to receive financial aid from the government while getting medical treatment.

“I still feel pain, but I stopped getting treatment because the government isn’t supporting my medical bills anymore,” said Lee.

“But now I have to officially prove that I injured it during the incident last year. I always need to present a doctor’s note to get private insurance coverage. This entire process is extremely exhausting.”

Lee defined herself as a “hidden victim” of the incident, and said that she was not alone.

“The reason why there are so many victims hiding is because victims like us aren’t protected by the government. We’re left to explain and deal with something traumatic that happened to us on our own.”

Many rescue workers who were at the scene last year are also reportedly still struggling to cope with trauma.

Passers-by gaze at messages attached to a board set up to remember victims of the Itaewon crowd crush on Sunday, a week before the first anniversary of the tragedy that occurred in a narrow alley in central Seoul on October 29 last year. PHOTO: ANN/THE KOREA HERALD SOURCE

According to the South Korean National Fire Agency data presented by Representative Oh Young-hwan of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, up to 1,316 firefighters who were dispatched to the scene during the crowd crush are still suffering from psychological damage and are receiving treatment to cope with the impact of the tragedy.

South Korea’s National Police Agency data presented by independent Representative Lee Sung-man shows that out of 1,371 police officers dispatched to the scene, 327 received 340 therapy sessions from November to December last year, and more are reportedly still suffering from trauma and guilt, according to a news report by a local newspaper.

Survivors and bereaved families have pushed for a special legislation to be passed after discussion at the National Assembly.

They want a special legislation committee to probe the tragedy to unveil the truth behind the incident and provide the necessary support for the bereaved families and surviving victims of the tragedy like Shin and Lee.

One such bill was put on the fast track on June 30, but no further discussions have been made regarding the law at the National Assembly since.

“The families and the victims, we all need society’s support. We need them to remember us until everything makes sense,” said Lee. “Please don’t forget about us.”