‘Overwhelming’: South Korean families’ grief compounded by online abuse
Seoul, South Korea — First, he lost his child in Seoul’s Halloween crowd crush. Then came a torrent of online abuse, upending his family’s once-private life and making him an internet-wide figure of mockery.
In October, Lee Jong-chul’s 24-year-old son was among more than 150 people killed in the disaster in the city’s popular Itaewon district. Grief-stricken, he spoke to media, pleading with South Korean politicians to take action.
Then, as has happened after incidents from the Sandy Hook mass shooting to the disappearance of British woman Nicola Bulley, an internet mob formed: Lee and his family’s personal tragedy was mocked, belittled and misrepresented online.
From photos doctored to show Lee laughing after being offered compensation to attempts to link him to North Korea — two viral posts debunked by AFP digital verification reporters — he and his family have become a virtual punching bag on Korean-language forums.
“It’s unspeakable what some of these comments say,” said Lee’s daughter Ga-young, adding that the sheer volume of abuse was “overwhelming”, with any news report on them attracting hundreds of comments, almost exclusively negative, in minutes.
At their apartment in Goyang city just outside Seoul, the family’s late son Lee Ji-han’s bedroom has not been touched since he last walked out on October 29, 2022. His clothes still hang on the door where he left them, the book he was reading lies on his bed.
“That day changed our lives forever,” his mother Cho Mi-eun told AFP, saying she still listens to old voicemail messages just to hear her son’s voice.
“Every night Ji-han’s father goes out to wait for him, for hours sometimes. He says he’s going out to smoke, but we know he’s waiting for Ji-han,” she said, adding that her husband had made multiple suicide attempts since the disaster and the online attacks.
Politics of disaster
The families of the Itaewon victims want answers about why authorities failed to prevent the catastrophe despite clear warning signs, Lee Jung-min, who lost his 29-year-old daughter, told AFP.
Some of the victims’ families formed a group “to understand what really happened and to hold those officials responsible”, said the bereaved father, who was visibly tired and unshaven.
But the internet interpreted their efforts to organize as an attack on the government, with right-wing trolls launching a coordinated counter-attack, accusing the families of being profiteers out for compensation, or anti-government forces.
Experts say the government is worried the disaster could hurt the administration. Seoul’s last conservative government lost power in part due to its mishandling of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, which killed more than 300.
As a result, some ruling-party lawmakers criticized the victims’ families during parliamentary sessions, which created “open season on us” online, Lee said.
Lawmakers promoted outlandish conspiracies: one claimed the crowd crush was caused by vegetable oil poured on the ground by opposition-linked labor union operatives, while another insinuated the deaths were due to illegal drugs.
An official police investigation found no evidence for either claim.
But South Korea’s highly polarised political environment allows such misinformation to thrive, said Seo Soo-min, a communications professor at Sogang University.
Two days after the disaster, Prime Minister Han Duk-soo publicly urged people not to “make hateful comments, spread fabricated information or share graphic images of the accident”.
But the government has done almost nothing to stop the attacks, despite repeated pleas from victims’ families for help, said Kim Yu-jin, who lost her 24-year-old sister in the disaster.
A 16-year-old Itaewon survivor committed suicide in December, in part due to shock at the online abuse, the victims’ families said.
Prime Minister Han said the government bore no responsibility, blaming the victim for not being “strong minded” enough.
Even a public mourning altar set up to commemorate the victims has become a flashpoint after authorities threatened it with removal, and far-right YouTubers picketed it with abuse while live-streaming.
The victims’ families must now not only grieve their lost loved ones, but do battle for their memories online, said Kim.
Every day, she reads the fresh deluge of hateful comments about her sister and reaches out to individual media outlets to request they be removed.
“I know it’s a hopeless task, there are countless comments,” she said, adding: “But I have to carry on, who else will fight for my sister?”