This piece was originally written for a freshman seminar “Poverty Policies and the Dispossessed in America” in December 2017. It has been published to honor April 16th, 2018, which marked the 4th anniversary of the sinking of Sewol Ferry.
Spring is the season of life. Yellow forsythias adorn the streets and forests of South Korea every spring. The long, thin branches and brightly colored flowers signal the bloom – the revival of life after a cold, grim winter. I still remember marveling at those delicate flowers that graced the perimeters of my elementary school. The forsythia flowers unfailingly bloomed in April of every year. Their bloom represented a promise: promise of mother nature and promise of flowing time. However, the streaks of bright yellow that marked the spring of 2014 never disappeared. Time stopped. Although the flowers withered, the yellow ribbons hung to commemorate the victims of devastating Sewol Ferry Accident that took lives of more than 300 passengers stayed. Just as the yellow forsythia signaled restoration of nature, the bright ribbons revived the spirit of Korea following the accident. The yellow ribbons that covered the whole of Korea in 2014 affirmed the promise of enduring hope amidst seemingly endless darkness.
I remember when my first phone lit up during Geometry class with the breaking news of Sewol Ferry capsizing. The photo showed a ferry tilted completely to its left side. A couple minutes later, another breaking news appeared that all 476 passengers in the ferry, including 324 students of Danwon High School, had been rescued. Thirty minutes later, came the correction: more than 300 still remain trapped in the ferry. These first couple hours of Sewol Ferry still linger in the minds of many Koreans. At 08:52 a.m. on April 16, 2014, the South Korea Coast Guard received an emergency call from a high school student on Sewol Ferry, desperately alerting them that the ferry was sinking. At 11:18 a.m., after unsuccessful rescue efforts, Sewol Ferry fully submerged in the seas off the southern coast of South Korea. Only its rusty bow peered out from the dark waters. The entire process was broadcasted live on national television to the Korean citizens from the minute the patrol boat arrived to the moment Sewol ferry sunk under the ocean. Ki-sik Kim, former Senator of South Korea and Secretary General of the Korea Institute for the Future, a policy think tank, recalls his first confrontation with Sewol Ferry through the TV screen. Since April 2014, he has worked closely with the families of victims and been involved with recovery efforts. Ki-sik says he would have never imagined what that image of the Ferry’s bow rising above the waters would entail and what impact the horrific event would bring about in Korea.
Ki-sik has been a long companion of Korean democracy. He has not only served as a congressman in the Korean Parliament, but also was the former Secretary General of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, an NGO that aims to increase citizens’ participation in the law-making process. At the same time, he is part of an ‘adult generation’ (Kisungsidae) of Korea, who feel pressing guilt for the death of high school students in Sewol. Since the Sewol Accident, he has worked closely with the families of victims and legislators to uncover the truth behind the traumatic event that stirred Korean society to its core. One cold Autumn evening in October, I spoke with Ki-sik about the accident that had swallowed Korea in its dark body.
Culture of Han
Our first conversation through the computer screen started off with discussion of death. He said if there is one thing a person must know to understand Sewol and its impact on Korea, it is the concept of Han (ÇÑ). When he uttered that word through the glassy computer screen, his eyes somehow seemed deeper, eyebrows more furrowed, and creases more pronounced.
“Death leaves a lasting mark on our Korean people,” Ki-sik asserted. “Koreans have always collectively suffered and shared the pain that death brings. The han sentiment is integrated through the core of our society. It is essential to explain our emotions.”
When he was articulating this concept of han, although his insight was novel, the concept, his calm voice, and settled composure spoke familiarity – familiarity of han and perhaps, familiarity of internalizing the trauma from Sewol. Han is a complex synthesis of sorrow, piercing pain, as well as undying hope for the future. Or, as theologian Nam-dong Suh describes it, han is a “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.” It captures softness and bitterness of collective human emotions in one syllable. It is difficult to explain this emotion in English; there is no direct translation. But I knew what Ki-sik meant when he said the Sewol touched upon and stirred the han of Koreans. I understood when his eyes became glassy as he recalled how han of victims’ families smeared through their testimonies. As a Korean born and raised in Korea, I am able to empathize with their emotions and even hold my own sense of han toward the Sewol Ferry Accident. This collective sense of han has brought great suffering to Korea as a nation as people mourn the losses together. At the same time, this very exact sensation has bound people together since April 2014. Koreans identify with each other through this common experience of shared sentiment.
Resentment and Helplessness
“How Is This a Nation?”
Winter of 2016, I witnessed Korea fill with anger, justice, and passion. Millions of Koreans poured out onto the street every weekend for a candlelight march for the impeachment of President Keun-Hye Park. Although her influence in the peddling scandal with close acquaintance Soon-Sil Choi sparked the protest, Ki-sik pointed out that the public feeling of resentment and disappointment toward Park and her administration was first cultivated during the Sewol Ferry Accident. Ki-sik regretfully muttered that the majority of passengers in the ferry could have been rescued. We all know that ‘what if’s in history cannot be answered. Yet, parents of high school students who were buried in the cold coast waters cannot help but question the authorities who had been in power – “what if?”
Ki-sik told me, “The Korean government completely failed. The President, who was supposed to oversee and direct the entire rescue process, did not appear in public until seven hours after the accident. We still do not know what happened during those seven hours of leadership vacancy. The coast guards on 123 Patrol Boat refused to go into the ferry to save passengers. Too many hypothetical questions linger in the minds of victims’ families: ‘What if the crew issued an evacuation order? What if the President was present? What if the coast guards made active efforts to rescue?’ These unanswered cries are a constant reminder to all of Korea that the government failed to fulfill its duty to protect the citizens.”
As the Kisungsidae of Korea, Ki-sik was upset and regretful. As a politician, he was dumbfounded and apprehensive. Three hundred and four dead or missing people in Sewol are not only losses of the sons and daughters of many parents; it also evidences of bureaucratic failure and improper response mechanism of the Korean government. When the South Korea Coast Guard first received an emergency call from Sewol Ferry at 08:52 a.m., instead of requesting for the ship name or dispatching a search crew, the official asked the student for the longitude and latitude of the ship. At 09:32 a.m., 40 minutes after the initial report, the Coast Guard’s Patrol Boat 123 arrived at the scene. Instead of actively rescuing passengers still trapped inside the ferry, it merely fished out passengers who had already jumped into the ocean. The head of the patrol boat was later prosecuted and convicted for gross negligence.
A phrase that has been constantly coined since the incident in Sewol is “How Is This a Nation?” This phrase covered the Gwanghwamun Square immediately after the Sewol Ferry Accident as victims’ families and citizens protested for thorough investigation of the event. It was printed on many posters and pamphlets during the 2017 Candlelight Marches against President Park. The phrase also coated the walls of many progressive political parties in Korea. The lack of immediate response to Sewol not only exposed the incompetency of government but also penetrated the adults with a sense of universal helplessness which Ki-sik himself attested to. The only thing that Korean citizens could do was watch the live video of a ferry slowly capsizing while the patrol boats simply circled around.
“When parents die, they’re buried in the ground, but when a child dies, you bury the child in your heart.”
Han also encapsulates pain. Though the Sewol Ferry Accident thoroughly devastated every inch of Korea, it left a permanent scar on the families of victims and Danwon High School students who survived. As the Korean proverb above articulates, parents of those students who passed away live with a punishing sense of guilt and regret. The high school is located in Ansan, which is a primarily working- class neighborhood on the periphery of Seoul. Many parents regretted not having providing enough monetarily for their child.
“Every time I talk to the victims’ parents, our conversations are filled with inconsolable regrets. They wish they had not sent their child to the school field trip. They wish they had granted their child’s wishes more often. They regret being born in Korea. Some even have messages and voice mails that their children sent as they were trapped inside the sunken ferry, counting minutes till the water filled up. Many parents have quit jobs and abandoned their lives that existed before April 16, 2014, to uncover the truth behind the accident. It has been a torturous three years for them,” Ki-sik said.
Ki-sik also emphasized the particular significance that a death of a student carries in Korea. In addition to being a member of Kisungsidae, a politician, and a parent, he was also a former student activist for democracy during the authoritarian rule of President Doo-Hwan Chun in the 1980s. His eyes wandered across my computer screen as he thought back on his friend whose time stopped in 1987, the peak of student movement for democracy. The death of Jong-chul Park, then a college student in Seoul, was caused by police torture and brutality, and instigated a period of momentous changes for Korea. It galvanized Korean citizens of all ages and status to unite in nationwide pro-democracy protests, now known as the June Democratic Uprising, which ultimately led to the first democratic election of Korea.
“In Korea, we have witnessed the power of shared suffering and conviction stemming from the death of one determined student – the power to change society. That one death incited a series of protests that ultimately overthrew the authoritarian rule and established democracy in Korea,” Ki-sik remarked. His words contained pride, admiration, as well as unexplained nostalgia toward Park. As Ki-sik repeated and reemphasized the meaning of death in both June 1987 and Sewol, his voice reflected a myriad of different identities – from an adult recalling the old days, a politician celebrating Korea’s progress, a friend of a brave soul, to a parent empathizing with a death of a child.
Although it is impossible to fathom the trauma that penetrates victims’ families, that unified sense of pain and trauma lingers in the minds of many Koreans. Ki-sik is a 50-year-old politician, and I am a 20-year-old college student. We are a world apart in age and occupation, yet our recollection of Sewol coexists on an equal level and probably lingers on the same image of the coast guard circling the ferry boat as the ferry slowly sank. At 9:46 a.m., the captain of the Sewol Ferry was rescued; him only in his boxers desperately jumping over to the rescue vessel was captured by a film camera on the scene. Instead of issuing emergency evacuation orders and overseeing the ferry, the crew members had ordered passengers to remain still while they were waiting to get rescued in the pilothouse. The image of an authority completely neglecting his duties to society is imprinted in my mind and Ki-sik’s, as well as in that of many other Koreans. In his book Is this America?, Ron Eyerman describes cultural trauma as an abstract concept that addresses the issues of national identity, assignment of duties amongst members of society, and their failure to fulfill those roles. His definition of cultural trauma illuminates duties and responsibilities that humans owe one another, especially in the face of collective suffering.
Right the wrong
On October 2017, it was revealed that much of the evidence that was presented at the investigation immediately following the accident in 2014 were modified and fabricated by the Blue House, the executive branch of Korea. As layers of the previous administration are slowly, yet steadily revealed by the new administration’s investigations, more evidence of negligence and incapacity have emerged. The 2nd Special Commission on Sewol launched in December 2017 to investigate the Sewol Accident from the very beginning. As our conversation drew to a close, Ki-sik shared the hope of the victims’ families.
“Although rancor and grief remain, the families now want the truth above all. They wish to rectify the wrongs that have been committed by exposing the facts. The han engraved deep in their hearts call them to fight for justice and truth – to right the wrong,” he said.
Although yellow forsythias still blossom every spring on the sidewalks, their colors pale beside the bright yellow tokens of hope that flourish year around everywhere in Korea – on buildings, backpacks, phones, books, profile photos and many more places. Yellow ribbons are constant reminders of the cold spring in 2014 and how Koreans endured that darkness through their collective effort. The ebb and flow of the dark blue ocean that engulfed the bow of Sewol certainly disturbed calm waters of Korea. Yet, it also instilled a lasting sense of han amongst Koreans that provides a mechanism to internalize pain through shared suffering and mutual support. As journalist Calum Walker eloquently puts it, “Han becomes part of the blood and breadth of a person.” The yellow ribbons will continue to link Koreans together in their unified stride toward hope and solidarity. Instead of forming a never-ending emotional circle of blame, anger, and revenge, the yellow ribbon creates one loop then proceeds on to understand and heal from the tragedy – a path forward.
I pressed the end call button to deep lines of Ki-sik’s smile and painfully pronounced yellow ribbon clipped to his shirt.