Altered photo falsely shared as South Korean leader honouring crowd crush victims on anniversary

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has faced criticism for not attending a mass gathering at the weekend to remember almost 160 people killed in a Seoul crowd crush during Halloween festivities a year ago. The furore has spawned claims on social media that Yoon secretly marked the first anniversary of the disaster at the site of the crush under cover of darkness. But the photo supporting this claim has been altered and actually shows the leader paying tribute to victims just two days after the tragedy last year.

"I'm touched," reads a Korean-language post on Facebook from October 30 that contains the altered image of the president.

It shows Yoon bending over in front of flowers placed on the ground in what appears to be dim light or darkness.

"President Yoon secretly paid his condolences at dawn on the first anniversary of Itaewon without letting anyone know," reads text alongside the image.

"His aides advised him not to go, but he went anyway."

The claim was shared after thousands gathered for a mass memorial service on October 29 to mark the first anniversary of the Seoul crush, which killed 159 people in the capital's Itaewon entertainment district.

The service, organised by families of the victims, was attended by numerous officials and politicians, with the notable exception of the president.

Yoon's office declined an invitation to the event, calling it a "political rally" because opposition parties had helped organise it.

Instead, he took part in a different memorial service at a church in Seoul, delivering a eulogy in which he called the tragedy "the saddest day of my life" (archived link).

A screenshot of the claim shared on Facebook, captured October 30, 2023

Identical claims that Yoon was secretly at the site of the disaster to mark the first anniversary have been shared elsewhere on Facebook, including here, here and here.

The image used in these posts, however, has been altered. The original shot was taken in November 2022 just days after the crush took place.

'President lays flowers'

A reverse image search on Google found the original picture -- taken in daytime -- was published in a report by South Korean news organisation News1 on November 1, 2022 (archived link).

"President Yoon Suk Yeol lays flowers at a memorial site near Itaewon station's Exit 1 in Yongsan District, Seoul on the morning of November 1 (photo provided by the presidential office)," reads a caption with this image.

The same picture was also included in a report by South Korea's Yonhap News Agency alongside other shots of Yoon at the makeshift memorial site last year (archived link).

A comparison between the original image and the altered one shows the picture in the Facebook posts has been tinted to make it appear it was taken in dim light or darkness.

Below are the two versions side by side, with the doctored photo on the left and News1 image on the right:

A screenshot comparison between the doctored photo shared on Facebook (left) and the original image published by News1 in 2022 (right)

Yoon's visit to the memorial site a year ago was widely documented by local and foreign media, coming amid widespread public criticism of the government's response to the crush.

An AFP photographer captured several photos of Yoon outside Itaewon station that day showing the scene from different angles, as seen in reports here and here (archived links here and here).

An AFP photographer captured several photos of Yoon outside Itaewon station on November 1, 2022, showing the scene from different angles ( AFP / Jung Yeon-je)
Yoon lays a flower at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the crowd surge outside a subway station in the district of Itaewon on November 1, 2022 ( AFP / Jung Yeon-je)



Yoon's appearance was also caught on video by local broadcasters MBN and KTV (archived links here and here).

Keyword searches online found no report or official announcement supporting the claim that Yoon visited a memorial in Itaewon in the early morning of the first anniversary.

Local media reports here and here indicate that, unlike last year, no flowers were left near the entrance to Itaewon station for the anniversary. Visitors instead laid flowers at a makeshift altar in the alley where the crush took place (archived links here and here).

AFP has previously debunked other misinformation on the Itaewon tragedy, including here and here.

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