Battle For South Korea’s Youth: The Itaewon Tragedy

by Seneca Moraleda-Puguan

October 29, 2022. It was a beautiful Saturday. My family went out for a walk that morning from our house to the university where my husband works. The weather was perfect, the autumn colors were nostalgic and picturesque. Little did we know it will be a historic day to remember.

In the evening, I invited two friends to go and ride with us to church the next day. They declined because they said they were already in Seoul and will sleep with another friend of ours. They were in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district in the capital, where many expats stay and is very famous for its Halloween festivities.

One of my friends sent a picture of him wearing a dragon costume, surrounded by a group of young men dressed as Super Mario. After a while, my husband and I began to see live videos on Facebook of chaos happening in Itaewon – lots of people being carried frantically by firefighters, dozens of young people in costume receiving CPR on the roadside, bodies of several lifeless people covered with blankets.

They said that around 50 people died due to a ‘stampede.’ It was a traumatic sight to see and a horrific way to end the day. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I was so shocked that I didn’t know how to react. We slept that night with heavy hearts.

The next day, on our way to church, news confirmed that almost 150 people, mostly in their 20s, were crushed to death, hundreds more were injured and many more were missing.

When we arrived in Seoul, I was glad to see my friends who went to Itaewon attend church. They were obviously shaken but they looked fine. Apparently, they were on their way home when the incident happened. They only found out about it when they got home and saw the news online.

Everyone in church that day was down and heartbroken. During the service, we all spent a few minutes of silence and prayed for the victims and their families who are grieving.

We were busy that day in church that the gravity of the situation had not sunk in yet. When we went home that night, with my children tucked in bed, my husband sat down and watched news after news about the Itaewon tragedy.

As I watched, my body began to stiffen. My heart was so heavy, it was sinking. Tears wanted to flow but for some reason, they couldn’t. When we finally turned off the television and decided to pray together, there was complete silence.

After a while, my tears began to burst and I cried profusely, like a mother grieving for her child even if I wasn’t in Itaewon that night and I didn’t lose a loved one. I felt sorry for the parents who woke up the next day with the news that their children would never come home.

Oh, how my heart broke for those young people, whose lives were cut short and their future and potential will never be realized. The heaviness was released as we declared God’s sovereignty over the situation and this nation.

I remember going through the same grief eight years ago. I just arrived in South Korea to be united with my new husband then.

One month later, a big ferry called Sewol, carrying hundreds of high school students on their way to Jeju Island for an excursion, sank. It took the lives of more than 300 people, mostly high school students. I was crying for several days, grieving for the youth of South Korea.

Yes, my heart goes out to the young people of South Korea. It’s the very reason I came to this nation, aside from building a family. I was a campus missionary, reaching out to students and sharing with them the good news of the Gospel.

My husband and I pray for them every day. It’s heartbreaking to see young lives wasting away and destinies shattering senselessly.

According to Arirang news, a local news channel, South Korea is ageing fastest among the OECD countries. It is expected to be a ‘super aged society’ by 2025. Twenty percent of the population are aged 65 and above. It is the inevitable effect of low birth rates and longer life expectancy.

Married couples in this nation prefer raising small families, with many only having one or at most two children. The government gives incentives to those who have more than three children but it doesn’t seem to work. Given this data, the meaningless loss of South Korea’s young people proves to be more tragic than it already is.

Dr. Jose Rizal once said, “the youth is the hope of the nation.” The future of South Korea lies in the hands of the younger generation. South Korea has to do its best to protect its youth. If they are taken for granted, this nation will lie in ruins.

May the Itaewon tragedy be an eye-opener to all of us and may it trigger in us a sense of urgency to fight for the next generation- in prayer and discipleship.  The battle for their destiny is intense and hard but it is worth fighting for.

October 29, 2022. There are moments I wish we could turn back time to this wonderful morning when everything was still okay, people were still alive, and life was normal in South Korea. But we couldn’t.

Life will move on for many of us. But to those who lost their loved ones, their lives are changed forever. And for them, autumn will never be the same.

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