Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sinking of the Sewol

Sinking of the Sewol and the Mourning of a Nation:
Untangling the grief, blame and facts of a national disaster

At 9pm on April 15, 2014 the ferry, MV Sewol, departed from Incheon bound for Cheju Island with 475 passengers and 14 crew members. The majority of the passengers, 325, were 16- and 17-year-old students of Danwon high school in Ansan City on their 4-day class trip to Cheju Island before they began their final cram year at the high school in prep for high scholastic scores for entering the more prestigious universities.

What should have been an exciting class trip chaperoned by 14 teachers turned into a national disaster hours shy of their final destination—a loud noise, a sharp jolt and 45° direction change followed by a noticeable list to the ferry raised terror but obedience. Passengers noted the definite list to the ferry but Captain Lee Joon-seok told passengers to stay in their rooms. With Confucian values of obedience to one’s elders highly regarded in Korea, the students remained in their rooms. Apparently with little top-down communication other than the order to remain put, one frightened boy, surname Choi, called the emergency 119 number which put him through to the fire service, which in turn forwarded him to the coast guard. He was the first to make a report of the Sewol in imminent danger of capsizing. His call was rapidly repeated by about 20 more emergency calls from other children. The captain made his emergency call soon after Choi, but crew members with walkie-talkies stationed specifically on the third level did not receive updated directions to take their charges on deck, put on life jackets, or abandon ship despite the rapidly increasing list and taking on of water. Therefore, according to the emergency manual, third-level crew members continued to tell students to stay in their rooms.

At some point the captain issued the order to put on life jackets; however, this order was not heard via public communication systems so crew members and self-appointed teachers who had rooms on the highest level endeavored to make sure their students on the lower levels had the jackets to wear. Teacher Nam Yun-cheol (36), after taking life jackets to all of his students, died while throwing life jackets to students in other classes. His body was found floating near the Sewol the next day. Another teacher Yoo Ni-na (28) went to the fourth level to ensure her students had on their life jackets, and then hearing that more of her students were following orders to stay in their rooms on the third level, went down to help them out. She was later found on the third level without a life jacket. Of the 75 students who escaped the Sewol, 19 were from her homeroom.

And while Captain Lee Joon-seok and his operations crew removed their uniforms, dressed in civilian clothes and were the first ones rescued, four crew members in charge of passenger care died saving their charges. Confucian-thinking or not, as the ship further floundered, Park Jee-young (25), a cafeteria worker, ordered terrified students to ignore orders to stay put and to go to the fourth level and jump ship. She said she would be the last out, but there were so many more to leave, and she stayed to direct others. She was later found still life jacketless and still on the third level.

Among the crew and 475 passengers, only a total of 174 survived the disaster. Out of the 325 students who boarded the ferry, a mere 75 were rescued, and only 3 of the 14 teachers survived. And although the vice-principal of Danwon high school was in the rescued number, two days later he was found hanging from a tree with a suicide note saying it was “so hard to stay alive” while so many of the students under his care had perished. He was the first to emotionally collapse from the stress. His students still are dealing with their trauma of losing so many of their friends and teachers as well as their emotional shock related to the event itself.

In a days-old Hallyu (Korean Wave) blog entry updating readers on the high-school survivors, stress and trauma of what the youth experienced seems to be getting worse. Of the 75 students two still remain in hospital care, 70 are living and taking lessons together at another institution in Ansan while only three have returned to Danwon high school. Though the students seem to be moving forward in academics and hanging with friends to discuss shopping and celebrities, about 20% of the students are receiving treatment for severe anxiety and the majority avoid trigger words that might evoke further post-traumatic stress. They even refrain from wearing their uniforms out of school in efforts to disassociate themselves from questions or sympathies about the tragic event. One father reported that the children do not see themselves as “lucky” survivors but as victims and sinners, who he described as carrying an overbearing sense of guilt. With only 75 survivors and 13 classmates who did not go on the trip—nearly an entire grade wiped from the school—reminders of their “lucky” survivorship are all around, especially as they walk past the ghostly classrooms of vanished teachers and classmates.

Blame, anger and a nation in tears has been the result of the disaster of epic proportion. For three weeks following the ferry sinking programs were interrupted on television and both local and international news stations were dominated by updates on the recovery of bodies and the social and political repercussions throughout the nation. For at least three weeks express buses tuned their in-vehicle programming to the Sewol news updates. For nearly a month numerous petitions demanding careful investigation into the Sewol sinking were drawn up and made widely available in public places like at university gates and on popular street corners. Large candlelight ceremonies were held around the country with a particularly large one held on May 17 with an estimated 50,000 in attendance; the candle-bearing protesters demanded that a clear investigation and transparency on the disaster findings be conducted as well as for the resignation of President Park Guen-Hye. According to one of my students arrested in the candlelight vigil turned protest, 150 individuals were arrested on May 17 and an additional 97 on the 18th. He and those arrested with him spent two nights in jail before being released without charges. According to him and the others who were arrested, they were never clearly sure why they were detained; his classmates all agreed it was an “irony of the government”. Meanwhile, throughout Korea in public places long-streamered yellow ribbons in huge numbers are tied to trees and gates, many with prayers written upon them, to commemorate the deceased.

Blame is placed on the government and most particularly President Park Guen-Hye as head of the nation for not leading a proper and timely search-and-rescue, for the corrupt regulatory system allowing the Sewol to function despite laws set in place to institute safety, for failure to apprehend Yoo Byung-eun, a thought-to-be fanatic religious leader and owner of the vessel’s operator, the Chonghaejin Company, and who at present has a bounty of KRW500 million (approximately $490,000) on his head but still remains at large. On May 9 parents staged a sit-in protest at the Blue House while holding pictures of their deceased children. They demanded a meeting with the President but only an unknown woman unrelated to the incident got the President’s ear and participated in a photo shoot. The victims’ families say the President lacks a display of sincerity; her ratings as a leader have dropped to 40%, the lowest since her election one year ago.

Blame is on the principal of the high school, who in the past week was fired due to Sewol sinking related reasons. Blame is on Captain Lee Joon-seok and his crew for abandoning ship in violation of the seafarer’s law, which stipulates that crew members must assist their passengers of wrecked ships to safety before seeing to their own safety. The captain and three of his officers are charged with “homicide through willful negligence,” an indictment that comes with the death penalty if found guilty.  

Contributing causes for the sinking of the ferry are numerous. The one perhaps most commonly offered is the excessive and habitual overloading of the ferry to maximize monetary returns for the owner, more specifically that cargo tonnage replaced ballast water which jeopardized the ferry’s stability. This instability is suggested to have been further impacted by the recent renovations and additional construction of fourth and fifth level cabins weighing in at an increased 187 tons to accommodate a further 956 passengers, but displacing the ferry’s center of gravity by 51 centimeters (20 inches) and creating a top-heavy transport. The original captain, Shin, who was on vacation, was aware of the instability of the ship and cautioned his mates not to make a veer of more than 5 degrees. At the time of the sinking, Lee Joon-seok was captain and away from the helm while a novice to the route was navigating the ship. As the novice entered the treacherous Maenggol Waterway, a most dangerous sea route with strong currents, a 15 degree turn instead of a gentle 5 degree turn resulted in a gravity shift and displacement of cargo allegedly stacked perilously and not to guidelines. The consequent sudden displacement of cargo at 8:48am caused the ferry to list violently, take on water and completely overturning by 10:17am on April 16.

The nation once again mourns a large-scale national disaster. The sinking of the Sewol has been most frequently likened to the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store in Seoul occurring on June 29, 1995, in which 501 people lost their lives. The department store collapse brought the nation to tears and raised questions on integrity, proper management and accountability in the construction of that particular building and how future buildings were to be built. Again the nation mourns but this time with the loss of principally its children, the future of its nation. Repercussions of the disaster are already radiating out, and expected safety standards and changes in politics are already evident.


The factual reporting of numbers has been a huge problem throughout the entire coverage of the entire Sewol disaster. The reports on the number of crew members have ranged from 14 to 29. Yet the first and most crushing numerical error reported was immediately after the Sewol was known to be floundering—parents were told through text messaging that all students had been reported rescued and were safe, but that number rapidly dropped to less than 40%. No wonder parents were so grief stricken after hope was offered and then snatched away. The number of passengers reportedly on board has changed continually, fluctuating between 462 and 477, as did the reported vehicles listed as ferry cargo, 150 to finally 180, and tonnage, 657 to finally 1157. Getting the “final numbers” even now, two months after the disaster, is still difficult as the latest numbers are being publicized.

Cheryl Magnant, MA, MA, Assistant Professor at Korea University, writes from South Korea where she has lived off and on since 1991.

[Published in Korean Quarterly, Vol 17, No 04, Summer 2014, p 8.]

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