I still remember what happened on April 16, 2014 in my home country, Korea. Two years from now, millions of the population heard the news of Sewol Ferry capsized while carrying over 400 passengers in the Yellow Sea. Most of them were 18 year old students from Danwon High School who faced death beneath the ocean. Media was soon flooded with the reports of divers pulling body after body from the watery wreckage and stories of families bringing the dead back home. Throughout the following days, weeks, and months, the entire nation had to wait to find the truth of what really caused the disastrous death of hundreds of young souls, relying on the government’s reports.
The story of the sinking ferry was way beyond mere disaster. On the day the ferry started to sink after taking a sharp turn off the Southern coast of Korea, passengers were repeatedly told by the crew members to stay inside the ferry. Hoping rescuers to arrive soon, students followed the instructions and remained in place, waiting for someone to come. However, it was soon found that there was absolutely no attempt by the captain or rescuers to save the passengers. In fact, the captain of the ferry was the only one who tried to run away from the ferry alone with the help from the Korean Coast Guard, leaving hundreds of passengers in the sinking ferry. Soon, as the ferry tilted sideways, water seeped in and objects toppled over, injuring people and blocking their way out. When the government reached out to save the victims, it was too late-only 174 of them could be saved with 295 dead and 9 missing.
What really stirred public outcry was the government’s attempt to easily get away with the incident, without any sincere apology or serious attempt to make a change in the national security system. Many criticized that the Sewol disaster was not just a single accident, but rather a wider malaise in the country that reflects the defect of security system and the lack of the government’s ability to handle such a large scale accident. The public condemned the government for disregarding public and worker safety and cutting corners for cost reduction that resulted in such a catastrophic result. Moreover, the government’s compensation plans for the victims’ families evoked an uproar. Instead of creating major reforms to dismantle the coast guard and conduct further investigations, the government opted to pass several bills that only create short-term effects. Some of the legislation was to give advantages in college admissions for Danwon high school graduates, to provide financial aid to the victims’ families, and to ban field trips in secondary schools. Such policies were yet another way for the government to ignore the fundamental problems that essentially caused the disaster.
Back when hundreds of passengers faced death, I was almost in the same age with the students who fought between life and dead in the ocean. I can still recall the moment I first heard the heartbreaking news and wondered how it would have been if I were one of them. What if I were one of the ordinary teenagers who left home as usual in the morning, excited for a field trip, and got on the boat without knowing what was heading toward me? What if I were one of them who were extremely frustrated but had to calm down and wait until someone reached out as the instructions said? Such endless chains of questions frustrated me and let me deeply connect to the victims. I was not the only one who did; thousands of teenagers all across the country reacted to the incident, showing solidarity with the victims. A number of youth started a worldwide movement with yellow ribbons that offers hopeful messages to the Korean public that the missing passengers can still found alive. Such movement went viral online, especially through Facebook and Instagram, spreading the idea that the youth should be actively engaged in politics to prevent any further accident and voice out to the government. By then, I was deeply impressed at how the young generation can induce such a positive effect on the society.
However, two years passed the incident, I notice that the response of the youth shifted from one extreme end to the other. Despite of such empowerment young generation of Korea brought to the country two years ago, they totally turned against the victims of Sewol after the compensation policies were enacted. Most of it was due to the advantages given to Danwon High School graduates during college admissions. As Korea is infamous for its academic elitism, most students view getting in to prestigious colleges as their ultimate goal of high school. Getting in to ‘SKY’ is considered as the main factor that predetermines their future careers and lives. Under such extreme circumstances, Korean students were outraged by the fact that Danwon graduates are given an extremely high chance to get accepted to top schools regardless of their grades and backgrounds. Although there is no doubt that the graduates should be compensated for their loss of friends, they claim that college admission has nothing to do with such trauma, and it is extremely unfair for other applicants.
The problem is, such conflict has created an animosity against the victims in the society. People came to condemn the victims for taking advantage out of the tragic event for their own goods. I just read an article this morning about a survivor who has been trying to overcome his trauma and move on with life after graduating high school last year. He told his first hand account of living as a Sewol survivor. Despite of his mental instability, he has tried to get over the past since he moved on to college. However, when he unintentionally revealed the fact that he was one of the survivors of Sewol, students at his college started to judge him for exploiting his situation to get into good colleges. Since then, he became afraid of being a victim of the disaster, concealed the fact, and started to work even harder to prove that he did not make it to college just because of the advantages given to him. Such hostility against the survivors is prevalent in the society overall, and this is just a prime example that shows the public response.
It doesn’t make sense that the victims of the tragedy are mistreated when the society has the responsibility to embrace them. Yes, I agree that the government chose the wrong ways to reimburse the victims. Providing money to the families, giving out extra points for college admissions, and creating a bunch of useless organizations under the name of ‘supporting the survivors’ that actually has no function at all can never be the right solution for what happened to four hundreds of young lives because of the government’s defective security system. However, that doesn’t justify that we have the right to alienate the victims and ignore their voices, especially when they are young adults who would suffer throughout their whole lives for losing their friends in such a dreadful event. Guilt of being the only survivors in the ferry will imprison them for lives. If you take a look at the interviews with the victims and articles about their march to Gwanghwamoon to show their solidarity, you could easily tell their endeavor to raise awareness on the government’s misconduct and to voice out for concern. Shouldn’t we stop judging the victims for being sacrificed again for the government’s wrong decisions and bring the morale back together. We should never forget what happened to four hundred young future of our country, and we should keep working on to create a place where such tragedy will not be repeated ever again.