Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Itaewon Tragedy: Coping With Grief Overseas

Korean Americans may feel a particular kind of sorrow over Itaewon.

Key points

  • the Itaewon Halloween tragedy has prompted finger-pointing, anger, regret, and even additional suicides of involved officials.
  • South Korea will have to reckon with growing social worries that lives and safety are sometimes neglected for political optics or corrupt profit.
  • Grief can turn into action and hope.

As the ever-rapid news cycle churns, the shock of the Itaewon Halloween tragedy has faded into the next phase of grief. There has been finger-pointing, anger, regret, and even additional suicides of involved officials. The sudden end to over 150 healthy, happy, largely young lives during what should’ve been a fun social event underscores the rueful sense of reckoning lurking beneath South Korea’s sudden rise to global prominence. That just under the glossy surfaces of success, the foundation is rotten, and the values are toxic. And this isn’t the first time a similar tragic youth sacrifice has happened in the last 30 years.

As a second-generation Korean American who was born in the United States to Korean parents who came here during the early 1970s in their 20s looking for a better life, I will always feel a complex bond with this country half a planet away. The bond is marked by my parents’ culture that still governed much of my upbringing, at times in direct clashes against the American world right around me.

It has been my lifelong struggle but also a potential source of wisdom to negotiate these differences to determine my path to a true sense of self. In parallel to my inner development, I have also witnessed my ancestral country’s own hurried changes during my lifetime, also influenced in part by the culture and country that my parents sought—America.

Korea spent half of its chaotic 20th century forcibly occupied by Japan, then found its newly independent land split in a bitter war influenced by the Soviet Union and the United States during the 1950s.

During the rest of the 20th century, South Korea grew partly under the auspices of American guidance (and military occupation), initially as an impoverished dictatorship, and then launching into its more prosperous democratic age after successfully hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics. South Korea grew abruptly within 35 years into one of the world’s economic powers and now enjoys global attention with its gleaming high-rise skylines and carefully curated cultural exports like K-pop, K-dramas, and popular automobiles and electronics.

One noticeable theme in South Korea’s burgeoning artistic sector, including movies and television, is an exploration of the dark underbelly of its capitalistic rise. In recent popular works like the Oscar-winning movie Parasite, or the hit Netflix series Squid Game, the message is that the glittering outward success of South Korea might be coming at a dangerous cost—that some part of Korea’s inner soul and humanity is at risk.

Indeed, South Korea has had at least four major public manmade disasters since the 1990s, and the last two have involved the generation now just coming into adulthood, the Sewol Ferry disaster in 2014 (where 299 passengers died, including numerous high schoolers on a field trip), and now the Itaewon tragedy of 2022.

When I heard the news this time, I was surprised that Halloween was even celebrated in such a major way in Seoul. Apparently, in just the last decade with globalization, some Western holidays have grown into popular phenomena even in East Asia, like Christmas in largely non-Christian Japan.

Itaewon is also known as one of the “global marketplaces” of Seoul, in part due to its history of being near Yongsan, a former major U.S. Army headquarters (which closed in 2018, with the headquarters relocating south of the city to a shiny new suburb called Pyeongtaek.) As recently as 20 years ago, the neighborhood was considered somewhat seedy and mostly known for selling counterfeit goods in hidden back rooms. Now it’s become a lively international nightlife area for ex-pats to socialize with hip Korean youth, with its narrow hilly streets, charming, but this time, deadly.

Growing up in Maryland during the 1980s, no one around me knew much about Korea. I was one of maybe a handful of minorities in my mostly white school, although my town was supposedly known for being racially progressive. On the good side, I was spared any overt racial taunting like most Asian American peers of my generation. On the bad, I still knew I was different than most of my classmates, that my goals and my interests were considered strange, and that I grew up somehow feeling perpetually isolated and disconnected.

It has been heartwarming and amusing to see American Millennials and Gen Z of all races so savvy and enchanted by a once-neglected culture, scrambling to learn Korean in college and dropping the Korean names of their favorite K-pop stars. That’s why it’s even more heartbreaking for me to see this harmonious, idealistic globalism that came together that night in Itaewon, people from so many countries, in addition to so many young Koreans, blending together in a way that I would have only dreamed of in my youth, now ending in utter tragedy.

There is a stark contrast between the University of Kentucky students in the recent news—Anne Gieske, a junior who died in Itaewon, having come to study abroad and continue learning Korean, and Sophia Rosing, a senior who was recently expelled from the university after an obscene, racist rant and physical assault against a fellow Black student in a dorm. It saddens me so much to see Anne’s life cut short when her heart was open when this curiosity to learn about other cultures is what we need in our youth, not hatred, and prejudice.

South Korea will have to reckon with growing social worries that human lives and safety are sometimes neglected for political optics or corrupt profiteering. We in the United States also have had similar tragedies where our youth are easily sacrificed for darker motives, as seen with our ongoing school shooting epidemic, particularly in Uvalde, where the people designated to protect us seem resolute in their refusal to adopt lifesaving reforms.

We cannot let the grief go unanswered; the young are growing in numbers and into their own, and as our recent election shows, they will not be ignored. One thing I will always be grateful for, despite the psychological stressors of immigration and its aftermath, is that I have always known my parents wanted a better future for me without question. They sacrificed so many things to make that happen, and that trust will always define my values and my wish to help others. We, as adults, in any country, now owe it to all of our children and youth to ensure they have their best lives ahead as well. Grief can turn into action and hope.

More from Jean Kim M.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Jean Kim M.D.
More from Psychology Today