Today marks the 4th anniversary of the Sewol disaster, and President Moon Jae-in’s first as president. He addressed the nation via Facebook yesterday, saying, “The Sewol tragedy changed us…. The candlelight protests and the vow to create a new South Korea began with the Sewol.”
A part of this “new South Korea” was the emergence of the “Sewol Generation” — South Koreans in their teens and twenties who experienced a major political awakening. After initial false reports that all passengers had been rescued, the nation was gutted by the truth: 299, most of them teenagers on a high school trip, were dead. Five still remain unaccounted for. At least some young people have taken politics into their own hands, no longer trusting adults to protect them from calamities of life.
The Sewol Plaza at Gwanghwamun has been a site of remembrance for the past four years. It was created to be a transitional space of mourning and protest, to remain until the details of the capsizing were fully revealed and the families could have closure. Some bereaved family members fasted here in the aftermath of the disaster while the Park Geun-hye government ignored their plight. The site’s prolonged lifespan is testament to both the significance of the sinking for the national collective and the deeply entrenched pain of the families.
The new regime has promised two permanent memorials: the 416 Life Safety Park in Ansan, where the student victims came from, and the now-upright Sewol Ferry in Mokpo, not far from the location of the sinking. It has also promised closure for the families. It means that the Sewol Plaza may be approaching its final days. On the 4th anniversary of the Sewol, what does the plaza look like and how do citizens envision its closure?
Apathy prevails at the moment. Gwanghwamun Square is one of Seoul’s most iconic public spaces, and thousands of pedestrians and tourists pass through the area daily. Perhaps the Sewol Plaza has blended into scenery for most. Roughly one out of ten people passing by gave a quick glance or dropped by. The rest went about their ways, in a way that is to be expected in a metropolis like Seoul.
As the weather warms up, the fountain in front of the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin becomes a popular destination for families with young children, as pictured above. In front of Admiral Yi sits a banner with photographs of the five undiscovered victims: Nam Hyeon-cheol, Park Yeong-in, Yang Seung-jin, Kwon Jae-geun, and his son Kwon Hyeok-gyu. One child asked with the innocence afforded only to children, “Mom, are these for the dead people?” The mother answered “yes, it’s to remember them.”
The Yellow Ribbon Factory operates constantly, offering citizens the chance to create little yellow foam ribbons. These ribbons have been heavily politicized. Conservatives have accused the bereaved of exploiting a tragedy for personal gain and using the ribbon to divide the nation. For progressives, it remains a powerful symbol of the nation’s ability to fight injustice and official incompetence.
Jo Seong-jin, 28, told Korea Exposé, “After the initial erroneous reports and President Park’s disappearance for many hours, I was so furious and in shock at the government. I think the anniversary should be an occasion for the nation to regularly reevaluate the role of the government and adults in making the country safer.”
An arch donned with yellow ribbons, white stars and a yellow ship takes visitors on a brief look at the timeline of the Sewol from its sinking to the present. Kim Jong-wook, 31, told Korea Exposé, “It still feels like the Sewol is an event in progress. I don’t know what closure would look like, but perhaps when the victims’ families can truly accept the investigation results, that would be a start.”
An unnamed soldier was in tears, rooted to the spot as he paid his respects to the deceased. He remained stationary for many minutes. He left a note on the Sewol remembrance wall: “What do I dare say? I am sorry. I howl knowing these tears will not reach you. Still, we live on. I am sorry.”
For the fourth anniversary, an exhibit was set up in front of King Sejong’s statue. Each victim was dedicated a poem, and records of government incompetence were displayed for the world to see. Visitors struggled to hold back tears.
Yoo Ho-rim (left) and Kim Soo-kwan (right) are both 29-years-old. Yoo could not hold back tears in talking about the Sewol. Kim, who had flown briefly from Jeju Island to Seoul for work, said, “Under the new regime, it seems that the young generation has finally departed from the past ten years of political apathy. The Sewol will be remembered as the turning point.”
Jeong Seol-hee, Kim Joo-yeong, Lee Ji-yoon, and Kim Ha-neul (left to right), all 20, were in middle school when the Sewol capsized. Kim Joo-young said, “Young people were not really politically involved before, but the Sewol was an occasion for us to rethink the ownership and responsibility we have as citizens.”
Lee and Jeong added that they too were furious at the government for its incompetence and at the media for the initial round of false reports. Kim Ha-neul said, “It is difficult to live everyday in remembrance of the Sewol, but I hope we do not forget.”
A large banner on the facade of Sejong Art Center reads, “We will not forget.” As the anger with former President Park for her role in the Sewol tragedy fades following her impeachment and incarceration, the nation is now tasked with giving this long-running saga proper closure.
No other event in recent history has shocked South Korea like the Sewol. We now seek ways to mourn, comfort and remember, hopefully free of the political vitriol that once hindered the healing process.
Photos taken by Ho Kyeong Jang and edited by Jieun Choi.
Cover image: Citizens pass by the Gwanghwamun Sewol Plaza, occasionally offering a quick glance, rarely taking a longer look. (Ho Kyeong Jang/Korea Exposé)