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Itaewon residents share how they are feeling after Halloween's tragic crowd surge

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

South Koreans are mourning the 156 lives lost last weekend in a Halloween party stampede in Seoul. NPR's Anthony Kuhn went to the Itaewon neighborhood where that tragedy occurred. There, he found residents worried about the future of their multicultural corner of that city.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: It's been almost a week since the stampede, but still a lot of people are coming to an informal altar outside the Itaewon subway stop to lay flowers and offerings. Streets packed with bars and restaurants here draw visitors from around South Korea and the world. Many of the places remain closed for a week of national mourning, but the owner of one of Itaewon's best-known bars opens a side door to let us in.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

KUHN: Kim Sam-sook, or as some of her customers call her, Mama Kim, has been running a honky-tonk here called the Grand Ole Opry since 1975. It hasn't made her rich, she says, but at least back in the day, her customers all got along, as most of them were U.S. Army officers stationed in South Korea.

KIM SAM-SOOK: (Through interpreter) That's why I haven't had any trouble for 48 years, even though I'm a woman running this place alone.

KUHN: Itaewon has a lot of hills and narrow lanes, which was a factor in the deadly crowd surge. Grand Ole Opry is on one nicknamed Hooker Hill. But the U.S. GIs that used to frequent the area have moved to another base outside Seoul. Kim says that Itaewon was just recovering from the pandemic when the stampede happened, and the mood here remains somber.

KIM: (Through interpreter) I don't know how long this atmosphere will last. We'll probably be in the red for quite some time. But that's not the problem. The problem is how unfair this tragedy would feel to the people that died.

KUHN: But Itaewon is not just a party mecca. It's also home to many long-established communities. One is centered on Seoul's central mosque, surrounded by halal restaurants and Muslim residents from countries including Turkey, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Indonesia. And there's an Islamic bookstore run by Muneer Ahmad. Originally from India's Kashmir region, Ahmad does not approve of the drunken revelry going on in Itaewon, but he loves the tolerant atmosphere here, he says, that allowed him to convert many friends to his religion.

MUNEER AHMAD: It was only possible when the country showed tolerance and patience towards the religion of Islam, and they allowed me to really propagate my faith, my ideology, the teachings of Islam.

KUHN: Itaewon has another hill known as Homo Hill, a hub of the city's LGBTQ scene. Heezy Yang is an artist and LGBTQ activist. He started the annual Seoul drag parade. He says when he moved to Itaewon, the neighborhood's multicultural character made him feel liberated and helped him to come out to people around him.

HEEZY YANG: It just really helped me become who I am now as a, you know, queer person and an artist and an activist. So it's like a hometown to me and like a little, gay village, even though it's not, you know, just for the gays.

KUHN: Yang is concerned that the stampede but also cast a shadow over his community. The issue, he says, is not just about finding a place to party. Going out in Itaewon, he explains, is about meeting friends who will remind you that despite being a minority in socially conservative South Korea, you are not alone.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.