Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Young South Koreans Don’t Trust a State That Betrays Them

The Itaewon crowd crush confirmed a growing distrust of national stories.

By , an assistant professor of political science and public policy at the University of Missouri.
Protesters hold signs demanding that South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol step down during a memorial for the victims of the Itaewon Halloween disaster near the city hall in Seoul, South Korea.
Protesters hold signs demanding that South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol step down during a memorial for the victims of the Itaewon Halloween disaster near the city hall in Seoul, South Korea.
Protesters hold signs demanding that South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol step down during a memorial for the victims of the Itaewon Halloween disaster near the city hall in Seoul, South Korea, on Nov. 5. Woohae Cho/Getty Images

Halloween only arrived in South Korea in the 2000s. But the celebration, embraced by many young South Koreans, will now never be the same. On the night of Oct. 29, excitement quickly turned deadly as a crowd crush in a packed alleyway in Itaewon claimed the lives of 158 people, most of them young women.

The disaster is a scarring national tragedy for South Korea. But it is also a reckoning for South Korea’s democracy. Consumed with partisan politicking and scapegoating, the South Korean government is losing sight of the real risk: a severed connection with the nation’s youth. Weakened ties to the most important constituency for South Korea’s future is not only a political loss for both parties, but a civic loss for its democracy—one that could destabilize the country and threaten its standing as a leading regional democracy.

Unfortunately, this is a familiar story for many South Korean youth. The failure to take responsibility echoes the state’s slow response and efforts to dodge blame in the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014, when a sinking ferry claimed more than 300 lives, most of them high school students on a field trip. That generation, now eight years older and in their early 20s, are again the primary victims of the Itaewon tragedy. More than 100 of the 158 victims so far were in their 20s, according to the Ministry of the Interior and Safety.

Halloween only arrived in South Korea in the 2000s. But the celebration, embraced by many young South Koreans, will now never be the same. On the night of Oct. 29, excitement quickly turned deadly as a crowd crush in a packed alleyway in Itaewon claimed the lives of 158 people, most of them young women.

The disaster is a scarring national tragedy for South Korea. But it is also a reckoning for South Korea’s democracy. Consumed with partisan politicking and scapegoating, the South Korean government is losing sight of the real risk: a severed connection with the nation’s youth. Weakened ties to the most important constituency for South Korea’s future is not only a political loss for both parties, but a civic loss for its democracy—one that could destabilize the country and threaten its standing as a leading regional democracy.

Unfortunately, this is a familiar story for many South Korean youth. The failure to take responsibility echoes the state’s slow response and efforts to dodge blame in the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014, when a sinking ferry claimed more than 300 lives, most of them high school students on a field trip. That generation, now eight years older and in their early 20s, are again the primary victims of the Itaewon tragedy. More than 100 of the 158 victims so far were in their 20s, according to the Ministry of the Interior and Safety.

The state recently announced that it would use the term “accident,” rather than “disaster,” to avoid tarnishing Itaewon’s reputation as a popular tourist spot. The growing public anger over this decision, especially among young people, relates back to the fact that very little about the Itaewon tragedy feels accidental.

Investigations are still underway, but public reports show that multiple calls to the police asking for help with crowd management went largely unaddressed. Police were understaffed that night, as many had been posted to manage anti-government protests around the city. None of this explains why there was no pre-planning for one of the largest youth celebrations of the year, especially in a country that usually has crowd management down to a science.

State negligence has been followed by state evasion. President Yoon Suk-yeol declared a week of national mourning as a symbolic gesture but was evasive about the state taking any responsibility. Government agencies with security oversight of Itaewon—the Seoul municipal government, Ministry of the Interior and Safety, and the national police—each offered reasons for why they couldn’t be blamed. Seoul’s mayor and the Interior minister have since formally apologized to the families of the victims, but only after public outrage.

Such events are critical junctures in a nation’s lived experience. Whether the state stood with the people or betrayed them in moments of despair is seared into a national people’s memory through what I call national stories in my book, Narratives of Civic Duty: How National Stories Shape Democracy in Asia. I have been researching how national stories work for the past decade. Unlike constitutive myths of the nation, which tend to be origin stories about who we are, national stories are parable-like folklore of the national people that define how we ought to live. They recount relationship lessons learned from a nation’s past to teach national members who to trust and be wary of and to whom they owe their loyalty.

The state is a major protagonist in national stories. Depending on whether national stories paint the state as a friend or foe of the national people, the state can become an object of civic duty or moral opposition.

South Korea’s ethnic nationalism, based on the idea that all Koreans belong to a unified bloodline, went a long way toward sustaining national stories that framed the nation and state as one. Even through state failures, notably the Sampoong Department Store collapse in 1995 and the Asian financial crisis in 1997, South Korea’s young democracy benefited from resilient civic duty in the name of the nation. National stories of state betrayal percolated in certain circles. But they were overshadowed by the metanarratives of past national triumphs, from the miraculous development of the 1980s to people-led democratization in 1987.

For the young in South Korea, however, those metanarratives that appealed to their parents or grandparents have lost their luster. They are taking a clear-eyed look at the nation’s future and finding it bleak. The youth unemployment rate has hovered just below 10 percent for the past decade. Korean women are now more likely to remain childless than have at least one child in their lifetime—primarily the result of soaring childcare and housing costs. The severe fertility decline has saddled a shrinking youth generation with the burden of providing for an oversized elderly population.

For many young people, the “Korean Dream” of their parents’ generation—of a war-torn nation rising from the ashes—is a relic of the past. In its place, they find “Hell Chosun,” a historical reference to the last days of the Chosun dynasty, where elite in-fighting and subsequent weakening of the monarchical state led to the suffering of the peasantry.

Today, as partisan elites are preoccupied with beating the other side, youth welfare is losing out. Students who suffered to make their way through South Korea’s notoriously cutthroat education system graduate only to find that there are not enough jobs. Many young women who invested in careers and embraced cosmopolitan values with South Korea’s globalization find themselves unsupported in the workplace, especially if they try to have families.

Both progressive and conservative factions in South Korea have fiercely appealed to young voters during election time. But once elected, leaders from both sides have cooled on the unemployment reduction or egalitarian platforms they promised, instead becoming embroiled in the nationalist issues that define the partisan squabbling of the older generation, such as conflicts with North Korea or Japan.

For many South Korean youth, repeated experiences of state trauma or neglect have hardened the belief that the South Korean government cares more about partisan victories than the nation’s future, seeding oppositional national stories. The stories of Sewol and the state corruption it uncovered, the challenges of unemployment and soaring prices, and now Itaewon paint the democratic state not as a champion but as a betrayer of the nation’s youth.

Civic duty that is subverted through oppositional national stories is dangerously destabilizing to a democracy. When national stories frame the democratic state as a threat to the nation’s best interests, they instill in national members a moral mandate to resist or reject that state, even if it means violating democratic norms. To see how subverted civic duty manifests, look no further than the participants in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on Capitol Hill, who claim to have done so to “save America.” The demographic, largely middle-aged and older, that has lost civic connection in the U.S. is different from that in South Korea. But both groups share the belief that the democratic state no longer cares about the best interests of the common people in the nation.

Youth who have lost a deeper identity connection to their democracy are also worrisome because they tend to seek a sense of political belonging elsewhere. They may turn away from traditional forms of political engagement entirely. They are also vulnerable to aspiring demagogues who promise to champion their interests against “the establishment,” which is the most common form of contemporary democratic backsliding.

South Korea cannot afford to lose the civic loyalty of its youngest citizens. The sociodemographic challenges that lie ahead depend on them. They will bear the brunt of the welfare burden created by declining fertility, the integration challenges from migration, the costs of potential reunification with North Korea, and the responsibility of defending democracy against the authoritarian resurgence in Asia. They are, quite literally, the democracy’s future.

How should state leaders respond to the Itaewon tragedy if it wants to repair connections with the nation’s youth? The answer is simple: as if the victims were their own children. For a bereaved parent, excuses for why their child died do not bring them back. Instead, swift and sincere acceptance of responsibility, maximal support for funeral arrangements, and clear policy and personnel reforms for prevention, with input from victim families, can offer solace.

When the state sees itself as a bereaved parent, any insinuation of victim blaming—that the tragedy was somehow driven by party culture or individualistic tendencies of youth—is nonsensical. Any efforts to exploit the national tragedy for partisan gain—whether by the incumbent party to deflect blame or the opposition to weaponize against the incumbent—are equally condemnable. The incumbent government can set strong precedent against such politicization and delegitimize partisan tactics from the opposition by first firmly monitoring the rhetoric and behavior of its own party leadership. If the deaths of more than 150 young women and men are not enough of a wakeup call to the polarized partisan politics of South Korea, perhaps the risk of a destabilizing democracy is.

It was always the idea of family—of nation and state as one—that fueled South Korea’s once-strong national stories. The Itaewon tragedy is an opportunity for the state to reclaim that narrative by bringing the nation’s youth back into the fold. South Korea’s reckoning should also serve as an example to other democracies, such as Ukraine, that are dealing with their own cataclysmic national crises. With the right kind of state response, national tragedies can be powerful opportunities for healing and restoring a democracy’s resilience rather than a path toward democratic breakdown.

Aram Hur is an assistant professor of political science and public policy at the University of Missouri. Twitter: @aramhur

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