Park: Searching for Closure

by Annika Park | 4/15/15 6:34pm

“Excuse me, why have the engines stopped?” “I shouldn’t worry madam, we’ve likely thrown a propeller blade, that’s the shudder you felt.” This is a line from the iconic film, “Titanic” (1997), inspired by the disastrous sinking of the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic, which yesterday marked its 103rd anniversary. Today marks another sad occasion — the first anniversary of the sinking of the MV Sewol — with a touch of historical irony of occurring just one day after the anniversary of the Titanic disaster. The ferry capsized, taking the lives of 304 passengers, the majority of whom were high school students on a school trip to Jeju Island. Not only is it ominously reminiscent of the Titanic, but it is also an opportunity to reflect on how different nations and their people react to disasters. In particular, the United States deserves more credit for its ability to keep the memories of tragedies in its people’s hearts forever.

It would be impossible to distill the incident into so few words, but the Sewol disaster was the result of corruption within the ferry operating company, the negligence and incompetence of the crew, insufficient safety regulations, flawed sea rescue protocol and an inadequate government response. What pours salt on the wounds of the families of those on board, however, are the tepid efforts at remembrance now that a year has passed. South Korean government officials have been absent or unwelcome at commemoration services held for the incident, and President Park Geun-hye is scheduled to leave the country the day of the remembrance.

This is a cultural issue. South Korean culture generally discourages displays of emotion and direct, head-on reckoning with the truth. We avoid uncertainties and like to put things behind us. Meanwhile, there are cultures like the United States’, where people are more willing to admit to mistakes as well as remember those who have fallen in the face of tragedy. As an individual, I can concede that I find it difficult to navigate sensitive subjects like the September 11 terrorist attacks, which people discuss only with the utmost care.

The U.S. has done much to ensure that the memories of the victims of 9/11 stay ingrained in the hearts of the people. The National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City was thoroughly and thoughtfully planned and then built in remembrance of the nearly 3,000 victims of Al-Qaeda’s commercial airliner hijackings and destruction of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Tributes are made every year at Ground Zero, with U.S. politicians, senators, government secretaries, president and, of course, the people. The victims are lauded as heroes who refused to give into fear, and their spirits and legacies are remembered in the form of funds, marathons, moments of silences, documentaries and remembrance websites.

The Sewol tragedy did not receive anywhere near this level of attention. Weeks after the incident, people began to shift their attention away from the initial shock factor of a sunken ship carrying hundreds of students. The nation held its collective breath, clinging to the hope that several unsuccessful rescue operations would eventually find at least one survivor. Soon after the news frenzy had passed and people began to lose interest, the momentum toward demanding answers and learning from the disaster waned. The government certainly fed into that trailing off of attention, with Park’s urging of the people to return to their daily lives and restore the economy in the face of such a saddening tragedy. Preposterous and politically charged accusations have made their way into public debate of the disaster, such as claims that families are exploiting the incident for monetary compensation.

It’s truly disappointing and I am personally ashamed to see my home country’s response to the first anniversary of the Sewol tragedy. 9/11 was, of course, an unprecedented incident that was instigated by an outside terrorist organization, prompting everyone to express solidarity and support for the victims’ families. But that is not so different for the Sewol incident, in which multiple institutions neglected the safety of South Koreans, violated their trust and ultimately cost them their lives. Today not only do I drop my head in remembrance of the innocent lives lost in the sinking, but I also drop my head in shame for the lack of solidarity and collective memory in the face of a national tragedy.