Gwanghwamun Square, the symbolic epicenter of Seoul, is a space that celebrates Korea’s greatest heroes. It features towering statues of Yi Sun-sin, a naval commander celebrated for winning underdog victories over naval fleets from Japan, and King Sejong, the inventor of Korea’s Hangeul alphabet, which drastically increased literacy on the peninsula.

The square now has another fixture. It is distinct in that it commemorates not a revered historical figure, but one of contemporary Korea’s gravest tragedies.

In two wood-paneled buildings is a memorial to the April 16, 2014, sinking of the ferry Sewol. The memorial opens this week to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the incident, which claimed the lives of more than 300 people.

The memorial, titled “Memory and Light,” features artwork inspired by the sinking, as well as screens that play videos telling the story of the Sewol. The names of those who died are etched into one exterior wall.

“The exhibition is a space to remember the Sewol, and other societal disasters, and to foster public awareness of the importance of safety,” said Hwang In-shik, director of administration at Seoul City government.

Gwanghwamun Square is arguably Korea’s most iconic space. Endlessly photographed, it tops tourist agendas but is also where South Koreans of all political stripes come to draw attention to a cause. In the months after the sinking, victims’ families set up a tented memorial in Gwanghwamun, where they distributed information, held rallies and concerts, and called for the government to carry out a thorough investigation.

Five years later, the incident remains a scar of the national psyche – a painful and humiliating episode that played a role in sparking one of the country’s biggest political upheavals. The opening this week of the permanent memorial means the Sewol will retain a lasting presence in the capital’s most conspicuous spot.

Protesters – in the yellow that symbolizes the tragedy – stand in front of the statue of hero Yi Sun-shin and beside the new Sewol memorial, right. Photo: Steven Borowiec

A lasting trauma

On Tuesday, the anniversary, President Moon Jae-in chimed with a statement on his Facebook page, saying he “sincerely hopes” the memorial in Gwanghwamun can “provide a small bit of consolation to the bereaved families.”

“The actions of regular people who remember the Sewol are changing our country,” Moon added.

Moon’s political opponents in the conservative Liberty Korea Party issued a statement expressing condolences to those lost in the sinking and their families, while also taking a subtle dig at the administration. Party leader Na Kyung-won said: “Many people are asking just how much our society’s safety systems have improved,” adding that her party would work to pass legislation to strengthen public safety.

The main commemorative ceremony took place in Ansan, a working-class satellite city south of Seoul from where the high school students and teachers lost in the sinking hailed. A slew of government officials took part in the ceremony, reading speeches and commemorative poems.

At the ceremony, Jang Hoon, head of the victims’ families association, gave an emotive speech in which he said: “The people of this country were all witnesses on the day we lost our children.”

Raising his voice, Jang asked, “Do you know who the killers were? Do you know who failed to rescue our children? Why was the state absent on that day?”

From tragedy to impeachment

The story of the Sewol has been told many times. An overloaded ship with a poorly trained crew sent out distress signals early on a weekday morning as the ship started listing drastically. Passengers were repeatedly told, over the ferry’s intercom system, to remain in their cabins.

Despite the ferry’s proximity to land; despite the length of time it took her to capsize and sink, and despite the presence of multiple vessels nearby, only 172 persons were rescued; 304 lives were lost.

The sinking was imbued with extra emotive resonance because most of the dead were high school students on a field trip that was supposed to be a final bit of fun before they buckled down to prepare for their country’s notoriously competitive university entrance exam.

Domestic and international media was dominated for days after the sinking by heartbreaking stories of text exchanges, and mobile phone conversations, by parents and students in their final moments, expressing love and sadness as hopes for rescue withered.

Crew members – who abandoned ship while the majority of their passengers were still below decks – were swiftly tried and sentenced, and the Coast Guard’s response was savaged as inept. Anger also focused on the country’s leaders.

In one of the day’s most puzzling anecdotes, then-President Park Geun-hye, reportedly asked why the students hadn’t been saved, seeing as they all must have been wearing life jackets; she apparently wasn’t aware that they had remained below, instead of preparing for rescue on the upper decks. Another murky topic is Park’s whereabouts for seven hours on the day of the sinking – despite releases by her administration of related documents, the veracity of which many questioned – sparking speculation that she neglected her duties.

Her administration’s handling of the disaster led to many to contend that Park and her administration were asleep at the helm – too corrupt and disinterested in the lives of regular people to oversee a state competent enough to undertake rescue efforts.

Anger simmered until late 2016, when Park’s involvement in an influence-peddling scandal ignited a sustained protest movement that led to her impeachment. She is currently serving 33 years on corruption, embezzlement and breach-of-trust charges.

The sunken ferry Sewol sits on a semi-submersible ship during its salvage operations at the sea off Jindo, South Korea, March 25, 2017. Yonhap via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. SOUTH KOREA OUT. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
The sunken ferry Sewol sits on a semi-submersible ship during its salvage operations at the sea off Jindo, South Korea in March 2017. Photo: Yonhap via Reuters.

Angry recriminations

Although a second investigation into the disaster wrapped up last August, families and activists contend that the government still hasn’t investigated the cause and circumstances of the sinking with sufficient rigor, and still ought to punish 18 officials who were implicated.

Activists argue that the new memorial teaches important lessons. “It’s a kind of natural phenomenon that people forget about such incidents like these, as human beings,” Lim Jae-hwan, a spokesperson for the association of victims’ families, told Asia Times. “If history is tragic, we should all be reminded of it, so as to not repeat it.”

Lim also pointed the finger: “We shouldn’t forget people’s deaths that were caused by bureaucracies.”

One name on the list of accused officials that all South Koreans will recognize is that of Hwang Kyo-ahn, then a high-ranking figure in the Park administration, now the leader of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party. A civic group and an association of bereaved families allege that Hwang attempted to prevent facts of the sinking from coming to light. Hwang has not admitted to any specific wrongdoing; the allegations remain unproven.

Hwang, in an apparent gesture of reconciliation, appeared at a commemorative ceremony in Incheon, the port from where the Sewol made its last voyage. He said that as a government official at the time he feels responsibility for the sinking and has apologized to bereaved families. He also apologized for harsh comments on the Sewol made, on Tuesday, by one current and one former member of his party.

Those comments point to the fact that the continued mourning of the Sewol sinking has not been welcomed by all.

Months after the tragedy, right-wing groups began to resent the round-the-clock presence of Sewol families in the capital’s most visible spot, and began to accuse the mourners of exploiting the tragedy to oust the ruling administration and make way for a left-wing takeover.

After the election, in May 2017, of left-leaning President Moon, South Korea’s right is down but not out, and resentment toward the Sewol, as a symbol of the left, continues. A few days before the anniversary, as a commemorative event took place, participants in a right-wing rally yelled insults at the Sewol families.

On the fifth anniversary, Hwang’s willingness to apologize may signal that the political divide over the tragedy is starting to narrow.

Path to public sadness

The salvaged Sewol herself sits, rusted and immobile, on a dock on the country’s southern coast, near the closest major port to the spot where it sank. Part of the reason for the salvage was to complete the search for the remains of the missing.

In a column for the left-wing Hankyoreh newspaper, writer Eun Yoo argued that the ongoing discourse over the Sewol has taught Korean society something about how to openly show vulnerability. “Before, there wasn’t a public platform to express sadness, and grief was treated as a private matter to be kept to the side,” Eun wrote.

Eun argued that the sadness expressed over the sinking was a painful part of society’s maturation in a time mostly characterized by conflict and competition. “Figuring out how to express sadness is a training of one’s mind…In a land where each individual is trying to live well, the Sewol’s sadness and tears have planted seeds for truth to grow.”