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Middle school students look at portraits of the victims of the sunken ferry <em>Sewol</em> at a group memorial altar in Ansan.
Associated Press/Yonhap
Middle school students look at portraits of the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol at a group memorial altar in Ansan.

Soul-searching in South Korea

South Korea | As the nation debates its collective responsibility for the Sewol disaster, Christians preach the message of grace

ANSAN, South Korea—Months have passed since the sinking of the Sewol ferry in South Korea. All across the country, rows of bright yellow ribbons still hang from fences, gates, and trees. The ribbons, now a symbol of national mourning, are a reminder of the more than 300 lives lost on April 16. But in the city of Ansan, which lost 250 of its high school student that day, grieving families need no reminders.

I visited Ansan on a drizzly June afternoon. Although classes had just ended, the neighborhood surrounding Danwon High School was quiet. The streets should have been teeming with students hopping over to food stalls, sharing rice cakes or popsicles. But that day, few students were out, and those who were walked with heads down and somber faces.

Ansan resident Lee Sinae described the current atmosphere as “extremely tense.” As we drove past Danwon, she warned me not to take pictures, look too happy, or talk too loudly. Then she pointed out each dry cleaner and market we passed: “Their kid died … so did their son … and their neighbor’s kid.” Lee sighed. “We all know somebody.”

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Inside Danwon, several classrooms stand vacant, even though school has reopened since the tragedy. Bouquets of white chrysanthemums, the traditional flower for mourning, slowly wilt on empty desks. Outside the school, yellow ribbons and banners expressing grief and condolences flutter on every street. One read: “We’re sorry.” But one banner stated in English: “It’s not your fault.”

For non-Koreans, it may be baffling how the nation could collectively beat its breast with self-flagellating guilt over a senseless maritime tragedy. The outpouring of grief has fused into one chorusing wail of parents, brothers, and sisters all across a country that is otherwise infamously fractured by politics, social class, and ancestral lines. Koreans have instinctively used familial language to express their condolences: It’s “our” children who bore the sacrifice for “our” greed. “We” have failed to protect “our” children. For all its cosmopolitan appetites and aggressive advancements, South Korea still clings to its deep-rooted identity as a homo-ethnic “unitary nation” that shares one blood, one ancestry, one national heritage.

But now the question is: How will those passionate emotions be put into effective action? The Sewol incident was no isolated accident. There have been scores of potential wake-up calls over the decades, from the collapse of a department store that killed 501 people, to fake quality certificates in nuclear plants. The ongoing investigations into Sewol’s sinking only reveal much-too-familiar details of corruption and irresponsibility.

The ferry, operated by Cheonghaejin Marine Company, was carrying 476 passengers, 339 of them Danwon High School students and teachers. When the ship started listing after a sharp turn, most passengers obeyed the crew’s repeated instructions to stay in their cabins— a disastrous, fatal display of maritime incompetence that is under vicious debate in the courtroom today. Many of the recovered corpses had fingers broken from frantically trying to claw their way out as the ferry sank.

Meanwhile, the captain and 14 other senior crew members were the first to abandon ship. They are now under trial on charges from negligence to homicide. Investigators soon discovered the Sewol was carrying three times the recommended maximum cargo, which may have shifted and caused the ferry to list. What’s more, a profit-seeking, risky redesign compromised Sewol’s ability to regain balance after tilting. Experts suspect ties between the government officials and shipping companies allowed such lax enforcement of safety standards possible.

Police traced corruption all the way back to Cheonghaejin’s ultimate owner Yoo Byung-eun, a billionaire founder of The Salvation Sect, apparently a Christian cult. They searched for him for months, even offering a $500,000 reward for his whereabouts. Today, officials announced he has been dead since at least early June. The businessman’s badly decomposed body was found in a  field of apricot trees on June 12, but it took the National Forensic Service 40 days to run DNA tests to confirm his identity. He was surrounded by empty liquor bottles.

The disaster has spawned a frenzy of international and domestic criticisms questioning everything from Korean politics to its culture. The government’s official website even posted some of those censures with the headline, “We humbly accept criticism from foreign press.” One editorial headline in the national newspaper Joong-Ang asked, “Are we a safe society or a third-rate people?” But for Korean churches, the bullseye question is: “Are we a church preaching a soul-saving gospel?”

Ansan, with a population of 760,000, has 930 churches. But according to one local church’s estimate, just one of the city's 25 neighborhoods, known as dongs, is home to 1,000 shamans, mostly female spiritual mediums who sometimes tell fortunes. And Ansan has one of the most diverse foreign communities outside of Seoul—and many of their religions.

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