Seoul’s nightlife district was built for tragedy

Seoul’s nightlife district was built for tragedy

At an intersection in Itaewon where ambulances gathered to help the injured and transport those who died in the Halloween stampede.
Photo: Jimmy Han/PentaPress/Shutterstock

Charlie Sim, owner of the eponymous bar Charlie’s, was more than a little sad when I spoke to him. A middle-aged Korean business owner runs a cozy living-room-sized establishment across the street from my old apartment in Hannam-dong, Seoul. I spent countless hours there drinking, hanging out with friends and listening to his life stories. From there, it’s only a ten-minute walk to downtown Itaewon, where Halloween celebrations last Saturday culminated in a mass stampede that killed 156 people and injured at least 151 more. The COVID pandemic has already ravaged small businesses like Charlie’s, but the recent tragedy came as another blow.

What happened in Itaewon is the worst disaster in South Korea since then in 2014 Sewol the ferry is sinking, which claimed more than 300 lives. Many they make comparisons with that accident because in both cases the victims were predominantly young, and the state did not adequately apply basic safety regulations. In Itaewon, it became apparent that the government did not provide sufficient police presence or coordinate plans for crowd management despite the anticipated number of attendees. Far more officers were assigned, about 6,000 in total to an anti-government protest in the city center and that protects the presidentYoon Suk-yeol, who after his inauguration in May moved his office to an area not far from Itaewon, than the Halloween crowd (only 58 uniformed police officers, according to the police). A log of 911 calls made hours before the sympathizer repeatedly warned of impending disaster also appears to have gone unheeded.

It’s dire news for Itaewon, which has established itself as one of the capital’s main party districts over the past decade. For decades associated with Yongsan Garrison, the large US military base to its west established in 1945, Itaewon has long had a reputation as an area for US soldiers to relax. With a large number of bars and brothels in the area catering exclusively to foreign military personnel and expats, the neighborhood is coded as a dangerous place for many Koreans. Here, security was not only a local matter, but sometimes turned into national or geopolitical crises. In 1997, for example, two American citizens were accused of stabbing a South Korean man to death in the bathroom of a local Burger King (one of whom is still serving a 20-year sentence after a deferred adjudication). Controversy surrounding the case centered on whether the investigation was thorough given one of the perpetrators’ ties to the US military, and the story was even immortalized in a 2009 film. Itaewon murder case.

But Itaewon was never just a mortuary ruin dominated by the military. During the 1990s, the district’s famous Moon nightclub was a pilgrimage site for top dancers, many of whom went on to become famous musicians. The neighborhood also became a queer haven that was as welcoming to foreigners as it was to Koreans (unlike the queer spaces in Jongno, another neighborhood in Seoul, which did not welcome non-Korean gays). Additionally, it was an immigrant-friendly neighborhood in a city that has some of the most expensive real estate in the world, providing affordable housing for low-income migrant workers. It is also the most important Muslim settlement in the country, crowned by a mosque built in 1976 (and the only one in the city).

Seoul Drag Parade, the first drag parade in South Korea, held in Itaewon in 2018.
Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Back in 2005, when I briefly worked as a bartender at a small gay bar behind the Itaewon Fire Station, one of my relatives wanted to accompany me on a night out (not knowing my sexual orientation or where I was employed). But his mother stopped the idea. “I can’t let you go to a place like that,” she announced firmly, much to his disappointment. “It’s just not safe.”

That hint of crime reinforced Itaewon’s appeal to young people like my cousin as a distinctly exotic (and morally compromised) place in the heart of Seoul. This is where some also felt they could try out new business ideas that might not fly anywhere else in the city. In the early years, famous comedian Hong Seok-cheon (the first South Korean celebrity to come out as gay) set the stage for gentrification by opening of a number of modern restaurants specialized in non-Korean cuisines, and others soon followed. The US military, meanwhile, it started moving its base to the south of the city in 2013, taking with him 17,000 soldiers. Real estate developers began scrambling, pricing out small businesses and erecting flashy commercial buildings that rented for exorbitant amounts while keeping the narrow strip of streets the same. This year, the mayor of Seoul even revived an old plan to turn Yongsan, next door, into it a Silicon Valley-like technology hub.

All of which has meant that the neighborhood has rapidly evolved over the past two decades from a quirky, dilapidated enclave patronized by South Korean expats, queer residents and migrant workers into an expensive nightlife playground for well-to-do Koreans and tourists. As Sim recalls, “I used to have all kinds of foreign customers. The teachers at the British School and the German School loved it here. But they all disappeared. Now only Koreans come to Itaewon and they are not interested in a small, intimate place like mine.” The tiny bars and restaurants like Charlie’s that made the area vibrant are now struggling to survive, if not already replaced by generic franchises and restaurants with little character. When Seoul Pub, an expat favorite for more than 20 years, went out of business in 2017, its owner he told local media outlet, “Big Korean companies want a presence in Itaewon because it’s a way to get to know the larger number of foreigners who come here today. Independent businesses like us can no longer survive here.” When his rent more than doubled, he closed the bar, and his lease was immediately taken over by a franchise restaurant.

Hot on the heels of that shift to a more upscale nightlife scene have been luxury condos — such as Nine One Hannam, where units cost from $6 million to double that for a penthouse — with two members of K-pop group BTS moving in. If all goes according to plan for the construction industry and speculators buying real estate in the area, the southern half of Itaewon will be mostly demolished in the coming years to be filled with even fancier residential towers.

Revelers donning makeup for Halloween in Itaewon, 2018. The neighborhood has been a major Halloween destination in the country for less than a decade, and its popularity has only grown.
Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Against this background, the annual Halloween celebration, which began less than a decade ago, has grown into the largest in the country without any formal organization or coordinating body, and cemented Itaewon’s status as South Korea’s must-see and be-seen place. 2020 Korean TV Series Itaewon Class, based on the webtoon of the same name, paid homage to the phenomenon, featuring an enterprising young man recently released from prison who stumbles in awe through the Itaewon Halloween parade and, over the course of the show, devotedly pursues his dream of starting a humble neighborhood boozer (as if something still possible). At first, he symbolizes the place Itaewon used to be—a place that welcomed foreigners and nurtured youthful dreams—and eventually becomes a business magnate who runs a large restaurant franchise, ironically the kind that is slowly taking over the area today.

Some foreigners attended the festival on Saturday precisely because they loved the show. They found themselves chilled to the core. “I wanted to see the filming location of Itaewon Class and it was Halloween, so I went with a slight urge, but instead I felt death in the air,” one Japanese fan tweeted afterwards, as quoted by the South Korean daily Seoul Shinmun.

The scene of the disaster was a narrow alley next to the Hamilton Hotel, between the main road where Itaewon subway station is located and a pedestrian lane approximately 300 meters long and five meters wide – coveted real estate even within Itaewon. Surrounded by dozens of restaurants and bars, this little area was always packed, even on a regular Saturday night, so much so that my German sister-in-law, who was visiting from Munich four years ago, exclaimed on one such night out, “I thought Munich is quite a city, but it doesn’t compare to this!” While the 130,000 people who gathered there on Saturday may sound like a lot, about 200,000 were reportedly present for the same occasion in 2017. Last Halloween weekend, when the crowds from both sides of that alley began to trickle in, there was no way out for those who are caught in the middle.

Police officers inspecting the scene of the riot two days after it happened.
Photo: Yonhap/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In the past few days, it has become clear how much the rampant development contributed to the tragedy. On the corner, the Hamilton Hotel itself has built illegal structures, including a temporary metal wall, a booth and a patio, further narrowing the lane at the choke point where so many lives have been lost. The local county office reportedly ordered Hamilton to remove these structures over the years, but the hotel continued to use the space, taking away precious breathing room that could have allowed more people to survive. Other businesses nearby also built illegal terraces that jutted out onto the street, making the boardwalk even narrower than it needed to be. Again, there was no serious action against these ad hoc additions, which worsened the deaths that night.

Although leftist political parties and South Korean media place most of the blame on the conservative government in power, Itaewon’s transformation into a viable party hub without proper infrastructure or security protocols is not the business of any political party. If nothing else, it’s a classic example of how little the country as a whole prioritizes security when it comes to economic development, be that as it may worker safetystreet safety, or building security.

Can old Itaewon, already under pressure, survive a disaster of this magnitude? Many are convinced that the young people will eventually return and that the neighborhood can hold on to the memory of the tragedy without becoming a ghost town again, as it was in the first few years of the pandemic. But that hope won’t do much to slow the trend toward denser, brighter development. The Grand Ole Opry, a country music bar and Itaewon institution since the 1970s, is facing possible closure due to a planned “redevelopment” that calls for a large chunk of Itaewon to be razed and rebuilt from the ground up, which would also demolish its building. The bar’s aging but determined owner, Kim Sam-sook, insists, “They may try to take this place away from me. They don’t know who they’re dealing with!” Charlie Sim feels the same way. “I still run my business in the same place. I will do my best to hold on.”

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