SEOUL — Seo Hyuk-jun, 36, knelt before the white chrysanthemums as he placed a lit cigarette, incense and a paper cup filled with Jack Daniels on the ground. He stood, knelt and bowed twice, performing a traditional Korean ritual for the dead.
Day after day, such tributes arrived at the makeshift memorial in Itaewon, one of Seoul’s most popular districts. Young South Koreans used to go there for its diversity and vibrant nightlife. They called it “Itaewon freedom.”
Now, the neighborhood has become a sobering monument of grief and soul-searching after more than 150 young people were killed during a crowd crush while celebrating Halloween last Saturday. Bars that were throbbing with K-pop music just a week ago are now silent, their doors covered with condolence messages and a notice from the local government asking people to refrain from loud music and dancing.
Like many South Koreans, Mr. Seo said he felt guilty being alive when so many young people were killed that night, their entire lives still ahead of them. “For them, it was no ordinary Halloween. They were supposed to feel freedom after three years of pandemic hell,” Mr. Seo said, choking back tears. “I hope my cigarette and liquor will ease their trip to the next world.”
Nowhere is that sense of mourning felt more acutely than near Exit No. 1 of the Itaewon subway station, once known as a bustling gateway to nightlife and fun. The alleyway where the crowd crush happened, near that exit, has remained closed all week, crisscrossed with orange police tape. Police officers stood guard on a recent evening, green light batons in hand. Pedestrians occasionally knelt and bowed in mourning.
“People are still walking down the streets, cars are still driving, but I hear no noise,” said Kim Hee-soo, 24, a shop manager in Itaewon. “It’s as if this place has stopped dead. It’s not the Itaewon that I have known.”
Since the disaster, an eerie sadness has prevailed in the neighborhood. Its streets and alleys, which usually never sleep, went dark early in the evening. Many shops were closed, and restaurants empty.
In front of a pork-belly restaurant, a mourner had placed a lunch box of rice and kimchi, along with a bouquet of chrysanthemums — a traditional mourning flower in Korea — and a handwritten note: “My friend, I hope you will be in Heaven, be happy and enjoy your youth, which ended so soon in this world.”
Built long before Seoul had city planning, Itaewon has always been something of an outlier among South Koreans. Decades ago, American G.I.s stationed at a nearby military base would visit the neighborhood to drink and unwind. Locals usually stayed away. After a time, the area gained a reputation as a place for foreigners. It also served as a conduit of Western culture — rock ‘n’ roll and reggae music, exotic foods and foreign fashion — at a time when South Korea was still a postwar, developing nation.
Itaewon had to reinvent itself when the American military began relocating to Camp Humphreys, a gigantic base south of Seoul, a decade ago. But even before then, by the late 1990s, young people were starting to flock to its trendy bars and restaurants squeezed into old buildings and narrow alleyways. The neighborhood earned a new reputation as a place to escape the pressures of South Korean society, bound by Confucian hierarchies and conformist views.
“When I think of Itaewon, the words that come to my mind are freedom, openness and diversity. You see foreigners here, you can experience foods from other cultures here,” said Byun Ji-sun, 25, a photographer having dinner with friends in one of the few kebab restaurants still open on a recent evening in Itaewon. “When young people say, ‘Let’s go to Itaewon,’ we mean, Let’s go clubbing and have fun.”
A popular song from 2011 honored the neighborhood’s iconoclasm: “It’s a new world there, I tell you. There is music there, there is love there, there is the world there,” say the lyrics of “Itaewon Freedom.” “Children go to amusement parks. Old folks go to nursing homes. Kids go to kindergartens. But we go to Itaewon!”
Conservative Koreans have long frowned upon Itaewon as a symbol of harmful foreign influence, including the annual Halloween festivities that became one of the busiest nights of the year. A Christian church once triggered a scandal by sending missionary trainees to proselytize inside transgender bars in the area.
When a coronavirus outbreak emerged in Itaewon in 2020, disease-control officials raided bars and restaurants, plastering doors with signs declaring them off-limits. Businesses were forced to shut down because of a lack of tourists. After coronavirus restrictions eased this year, Itaewon was just beginning to resemble its come-one, come-all self.
Last Saturday, the first Halloween celebration since South Korea ended its pandemic rules, was to be something of a coming-out party. Throngs of young people poured out of Exit No. 1. Clubs and restaurants were ready to welcome as many customers as they could handle. The narrow alleyway where the crowd crush happened was a popular shortcut to many bars and clubs.
“I think every special-effects makeup artist in the country had set up little stalls along that street and were applying fake, bloody wounds that looked so real,” said Tami Overby, a senior adviser at a global business strategy firm who frequently visits Seoul from the United States and walked the main Itaewon street last Saturday. “My last Halloween in Itaewon was 2019, and the crowd was nowhere near that large,” she said. “Never have I seen that many people in that small of a space.”
Partygoers surged into the alleyway from both directions, creating a deadly pressure. Few police officers were there to manage the crowd, even though the city had expected a particularly large number of people in Itaewon for the Halloween weekend. Desperate calls to the police went unheeded as victims were trampled and smothered.
While the government continues investigating the tragedy — one of the worst peacetime disasters in South Korean history — a steady stream of people have visited the makeshift altar built around Exit No. 1. Buddhist monks have prayed. Citizens have lit candles and shared numerous handwritten notes, many written by friends of victims whose youthful dreams ended too soon.
One of them was written by Baek Hyo-bin and addressed to her friend Yoon Je-yi: “I wish this were a long nightmare that I could wake up from,” Ms. Baek wrote. “I was embarrassed when you used to scream on the street and make those weird expressions of yours, but I now miss all of that so achingly.”
Itaewon has been declared a “special diaster zone” since last Sunday. As Saturday night approached, there were signs that Itaewon was slowly coming back to life. Workers had swept floors and cleaned tables after a weeklong national mourning period.
A candlelight vigil and protest calling for President Yoon Suk Yeol to take responsibility for the lack of crowd control in Itaewon last weekend was planned for Saturday evening near Seoul City Hall.
“Around this time of the year, my shop is supposed to be bustling with customers,” said Moon Myong-woo, sitting in a leather-goods shop his family has run for 30 years in Itaewon. “We thought business was finally coming back after the pandemic, but now we have this,” he said. “But I know I should not complain when I think of the victims and their families.”
Longtime residents of Itaewon still struggled to fathom the implications of the tragedy, wondering how it would affect the neighborhood’s image. Across the street from Mr. Moon’s shop, Oh Soo-hee, a real-estate agent, sat in her small office, her white pet dog at her feet. “How can we recover from this trauma?” she said. “So many young people died.”