The photo of Jang Sun Bok’s son resembles so many others taken by high school students on the Sewol ferry as it sank last year: A boy wearing a life jacket, smiling and flashing a V-sign in the cabin of the listing ship.
The photos are displayed by the memorial near Danwon High School south of Seoul, and on message boards in the capital. Many of the faces don’t look scared; survivors have said they assumed help was on its way and, told by the captain to wait in their cabins, they captured the moment on their smartphones.
Jang sees something more in the image of her son Jun Woo, then 17 years old and one of 250 students who died on their school trip to the resort island of Jeju. She’s sure he took it to remind her of what he said before he left: if anything happens, accept it and believe it was supposed to be.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him smile for the camera,” she said in an interview last month at her family’s home in Ansan, not far from Jun Woo’s school. “I think he took this for us as a message. This photo is what keeps me living.”
Nearly a year after the sinking, families of the Sewol victims still face the dilemma that Jun Woo sought to settle for his mother: whether to move on and try to rebuild their lives, a choice many feel means letting go of their children when pain is a link to their memories. It also means leaving to other families the struggle to find out what really happened.
That burden is what Jang’s husband Lee Su Ha calls the “secondary damage” inflicted on the Sewol families. It’s most acute for the parents of the lost students, because while it wasn’t just the teenagers who lost their lives that day, the images of them waiting for an evacuation order that never came literally made them the faces of the April 16 disaster.
Their parents were thrust into the political fallout, with almost every issue divisive; whom to blame for the botched rescue operation; the debate on lifting the ferry and when to do it; compensation and who should pay it; and whether the official investigation panel, which includes some members nominated by the families, should be given power of prosecution.
The struggles have only prolonged the agony.
“There are people who are trying to make us into fighters, but that’s asking us to give up the rest of our lives and stay miserable,” Lee said. “The families have already done enough to make the issues known.”
Lee and Jang felt it even before their son’s body was found on May 3, more than two weeks after the sinking. They kept Jun Woo’s corpse in a temporary morgue, and stayed with the other families at the base for the search effort in Jindo out of a sense of solidarity. Two days later, their own relatives demanded they bring him home for a funeral.
Looking back, the couple said they don’t find it strange that at the moment their son’s body was found, they were concerned about their duty to the other families. It was a sign of how deeply the families were already feeling let down by the government, first over the inadequacy of the emergency response and later over the stalling of an official investigation.
“It was when people were getting nervous because family members one after another were leaving Jindo as they recovered their kids,” Lee said. “Though it probably wasn’t feasible, all of us should have delayed the funerals until the truth was clear, it could have been a tool to pressure the government.”
Faced with a lack of information and the perception that political squabbles were preventing a probe, the parents’ mistrust of the government began early and only increased.
Many laid the blame for that on the way President Park Geun Hye seemed to move on from Sewol issues once her ruling Saenuri party held its ground in local elections in June. She made no mention of the ferry in her speech at the National Assembly in October, even with politicians still haggling over the conditions for an official probe.
Park’s silence heightened fears among the families that a cover-up was under way. In the absence of an official version of events, alternative narratives including conspiracy theories, filled the void. One was that the country’s spy agency was involved in operating the vessel, and another that the ferry was sunk deliberately.
To keep up the pressure on the government, the parents formed a support group. Each day, they share information about marches or other protest events. The parents published a book called ‘Please, Come Back on Friday’ that gives their accounts of the sinking and memories of their children.
Lee Woo Geun has put his life on hold in memory of his son Jung In. A single parent since losing his wife 15 years ago, Lee told his daughter Yoon Ah she can have his full attention after he’s protested for as long as three years.
Picketing is a form of penance as well as protest, he said.
“I was at work in a meeting when my son called from the ship, so I told him to follow instructions from his teacher and hung up,” Lee said. “He said ’Dad I love you,’ and that was it. I never knew that that would be the last moment with him.”
Lee tries to avoid meeting people he knew before April 16, including his mother, because it reminds him of his son. Only his daughter has prevented him from committing suicide. Protesting also provides a sense of purpose that no longer exists in his old life, he said.
“Being here and spending time with people removes my trauma,” he said. “It’s true that when everything is over, I will have to go back to my normal life. For now, it’s hard to move on.”
Lee Jong Chul tells a similar story at the parents’ tented protest site near the government complex, where he’s been sleeping amid the traffic noise of one of the city’s busiest roads since July and washing every day in the nearby subway station. Despite developing hearing problems and partially losing his eye sight, he said he finds comfort in the protest.
Seeking the cause
“We can’t just sit around and wait for the government to work things out for us,” said Lee, 46, whose son Min Woo died along with 31 other classmates and his teacher. Only one student survived from the class. “We need to figure out the cause and to make sure we know who ordered what, and ultimately punish those responsible.”
The protest site has become a community of sorts, where parents exchange information and the latest newspaper reports. On what would have been Lee’s son’s birthday in December, they celebrated with cake.
But their numbers are dwindling as monotony and pressure to return to jobs and remaining family take their toll. Of about 30 Sewol family members when Lee came in July, only one other parent remains and the site is maintained by volunteers.
There are fewer hunger strikes and other events, and Lee thinks the issues are slowly being forgotten. What keeps him going is a sense that justice hasn’t been served, and that not enough has been learned to prevent a recurrence of the disaster.
“As a parent, you want to do everything for your kid and that’s why families are still able to fight for this,” he said. “Our kids have gone and for us parents, we can go with them, but at least we need to know why it happened.”
For Lee and the other parents maintaining their protest, much will depend on the findings of the official investigation, which began only in March and has the option to run for as long as 18 months. Trials involving crew and coast guard members have focused only on direct causes of the accident, concluding that the Sewol sank from making a steep turn, which dislodged cargo on an overloaded ship made unstable by expansion work.
The government also hasn’t decided whether to salvage the Sewol, an estimated $111 million job demanded by the families for the probe and to complete the search for bodies. Park broke her silence on the issue yesterday, telling secretaries she’ll consider both expert and public opinion on raising the vessel.
The final death toll of 304 includes nine people still officially classified as missing, among them a father and six-year-old son on their way to Jeju to chase a dream of running a tangerine farm. The mother’s body was recovered; their five-year-old daughter survived.
Park Eun Mi’s daughter Da Yun is one of the missing. Despite suffering from a nerve disease that’s taking her hearing, Park stands outside the presidential Blue House to demand the raising of the Sewol. She has no plan to give up.
“I would like to ask the President to keep her promise, to do everything in her power to find them,” she said. “We are somebody’s mother, somebody’s father, we’re the families of those who are missing and there’s absolutely nothing we can do until their bodies are found.”
At their home near the school, Jun Woo’s parents made a different choice. Not because they’re any less angry with the government or politicians who delayed the probe, but because they don’t want to give up more of their lives to the tragedy.
And because their son told them to move on.
So Jun Woo’s father started a small business that allows him to work from home, and the couple bought a dog, Kongyi, who’s become the project of their second son, Tae Jun. They decided to give financial support to two children via charities, one overseas and one in South Korea.
“It’s understandable for those still in grief, they’ve lost a child,” Lee said. “But they have a very difficult life ahead of them if they don’t let go. They will continue to suffer. How miserable is that?”