Last week a wire with orange-yellow ribbons with calligraphy messages hung outside Danwon high school in Ansan where many victims of the South Korean ferry Sewol accident were students. This week those deaths echo during a period of May festivals as many travel home to be with family. The struggle by President Park Geun-hye and the central government to respond adequately to this event has caused a rift with many, especially young people, who see Korean society lead from above without either genuine sensitivity or the finely tuned public relations sensitivity of US administrations practiced in disaster response.
President Obama’s words of sympathy and gift of a magnolia tree from the White House lawn led some to question why the Korean president had not thought to offer similar symbolic response. This built on the shock and anger over the inadequate regulation of maritime transportation and the cowardly behavior of the Korean ferry’s captain and crew who fled but told passengers to remain where they were. Parents who previously felt their children safe remarked on their own fear now as they question the values of a government unable to prevent an accident that many feel should never have happened. The perception for many is that disasters occur without sufficient response to reform regulatory practices that protect the public. For some this is a matter of shame, as they consider these incidents characteristics of underdeveloped countries, and hesitate to admit they are from Korea when they travel abroad.
The levels of distress have been multiple, as reports emerged of desperate text messages from students trapped inside but dismissed by officials. The suicide of Danwon high school vice principal Kang Min-kyu, rescued from the boat but unable to deal with his role in planning the trip, suggests the division between a culture of honor and responsibility and a public administration that is out of touch. The deaths from the Korean ferry Sewol’s accident echo particularly in connection with May festivals. Memorial altars have been set up nationally at 114 locations in advance of observances of Children’s Day, Parents’ Day and Teachers’ Day that lead May to be called Family Month, in addition also to observance of Buddha’s Birthday.
As popular musicians cancelled concerts and album releases out of respect, the cancellation of the Beautiful Mint Life Festival of popular music in Goyang the night before its opening on April 26, though preparations had continued during the previous week, caused consternation according to Jaeok Kim of the Jelly News Service. Leading Korean musician Kim C. expressed his belief in the capacity of music to console, while Lee Wonsuk (Daylight Vocal) expressed his frustrated intention to give voice to the collective loss through the authenticity of artistic expression.
The echoes of the deaths of the Korean ferry Sewol accident impact May festivals and reveal further disagreements about how to respond to tragedy. The broad sense of distrust of the Korean authorities extends to questioning of fundraising efforts to benefit victims and families. In a similar effort on behalf of victims of the military vessel Cheon-anham that sank in March 2010, approximately 20 percent was misappropriated to benefit naval officers. Candidate for mayor of Goyang in June 4 elections, Won-woo Baek spoke out against holding the festival suggesting that it was not a time for music and merriment, though as Kim reported, Baek participated in local gatherings and drank Makgeolli, traditional rice wine, and distributed campaign materials on April 22 and 24.
By Lawrence Shapiro