It seems like yesterday, but it’s already been a full year since the accident that had all of Korea in simultaneous uproar, frenzy, and despair.
On the 16th of April, 2014, the Sewol Ferry sank killing 304 passengers, most of whom were high school students on an trip to Jeju Island. To read my post from last year, click here.
Since it’ll be a year to the day tomorrow, I thought I’d briefly talk about the repercussions of the tragedy that I’ve experienced whilst living here.
While still rocking in the aftermath of shock, the nation draped itself in gold memorial ribbons for the dead.
If they weren’t pinned to the shirt, they were strung from a line between trees, lamp posts, or along walkways, all signed off with messages of love and consolation.
In Cheongju, giant yellow origami boats were also made and laid to rest underneath a tree. It was well past summer before anyone took these down.
For weeks following the event, festivals (such as for the cherry blossoms) were officially called off in light of it seeming improper to celebrate when such tragedy had occurred.
Within schools it was much the same but with all extended school outings, field trips, and events, which were indefinitely cancelled. Things such as Sports Day weren’t postponed, but were never rescheduled at all. This lockdown on celebratory events continued, like the gold ribbons, into autumn.
Nowadays you still hear Sewol come up a lot. There is much bitterness when speaking of it, and so an unsurprising amount of criticism has arisen in its wake.
Any circumstance that arises in which the topic of Korean conformism comes up it becomes, “Well, you know, it’s the Sewol Ferry all over again”, or, “If we’re not careful it’ll end up like the Sewol Ferry incident”, or even, “This is why the Sewol Ferry happened”.
Of course these phrases are born of the intense accusations that followed the event – the critique that “being too obedient” is a major issue in Korean culture. (Note that this is in particular reference to when it comes to youth given instruction by authority figures and/or those their senior).
Where this leads us to isn’t into any particular discourse, however. In fact, if anything the government has become more conservative and strict on following the rules – often in ways that aren’t immediately apparent in their beneficial outcomes.
This was particularly true of changes implemented in schools. Field trips weren’t the only thing banned, it turned out: doing…well, anything that had a remote risk factor was suddenly a no-no. Such as using a gas cooker during home economics class, or walking through the students’ own neighbourhood during school time for a class activity. Always the answer was, “It’s too dangerous”.
Other ESL teachers as well as myself slowly began to become exasperated. Perhaps it was just our outsider points of view, or the fact that our countries have devastating things happen all the time and we are thus desensitized to the loss of human life (callous, I know), but we increasingly felt that Korea needed to get a grip on itself. After all, what was it doing but seeing the harm that could come of using a knife and then, instead of teaching how to use one properly, replacing all knives with plastic spoons?
There were many political repercussions following the event, but most of these I am unaware of due to my obvious language barrier in receiving the news. I do know that the prime minister, Jung Hong-won, resigned as a symbolic apology after his reported acceptance of responsibility. Many were left wondering what purpose this really served, however, when his country needed him most. Again, like the inefficient protection measures in schools, it seemed something of an empty gesture.
Then again, there were some gestures made that weren’t empty at all, such as this Danwon High School homeroom who took their class photo while holding portraits of their dead classmates. The boy on the bottom right is holding a picture of his girlfriend who drowned on the ferry.
It will forever remain a tragedy in Korean history, especially because of the proportions to which it was blown. For a while it seemed as though the whole country came to a standstill. I myself remember the horror and devastation I felt when considering that the number of students who died was more or less equal to the number of students I teach. To have them all dead in one fell swoop was truly heartbreaking to contemplate.
That said, I don’t know if I personally am satisfied with the outcome of the tragedy. It seems that nothing has really been changed because of it except to enforce stricter rules concerning school trips and ferry safety regulations when that wasn’t the bottom line of the issues at hand (namely that of youth being obedient to a fault).
Perhaps it’s a slow-moving turn, one that will be brought about by the younger generations who it affects the most – perhaps even by the high school student survivors of Danwon.
In the meantime all we can do is look onwards, hope, and remember.
For any of you in the area, the city of Cheongju is hosting a memorial day celebration downtown tomorrow evening.