ANSAN, South Korea — His room remains as it was the day he left on a school trip in 2014, his bed still neatly arranged with the same pillow and blanket. The trophy he won in a piano competition stands proudly on a bookshelf. On his desk are his computer and cellphone, untouched next to some of his favorite snacks.
Lee Ho-jin died eight years ago at the age of 16, one of 250 sophomore students whose lives were taken when the Sewol ferry sank off the southwestern coast of South Korea on April 16, 2014. More than 300 people died that day, with all the students coming from Danwon High School in Ansan, a city just south of Seoul.
South Koreans quickly rallied around the victims’ families in the aftermath, united in their outrage. But South Korea’s most traumatic peacetime disaster soon divided the country as critics vilified the families’ quest for accountability and proper compensation as an antigovernment campaign. Eight years later — pressured by time and daily life — much of the country has moved on while Ansan seems frozen in grief.
To outsiders, the city may appear like any other in South Korea, with its quiet neighborhoods and tall apartment buildings. In cafes, young couples discuss housing prices and the cost of raising children. But a closer look reveals the ways in which Ansan is serving as a memorial to the victims and still struggling to come to terms with the lessons the disaster brought to bear on the entire nation.
Families in Ansan said that at least three parents have killed themselves after losing their children to the sinking. Some families have disintegrated in divorce. Others have moved away to grieve alone. Still others have banded together to console each other, keep their children’s memories alive and help the nation understand the depths of their sacrifice.
A memorial in the shape of a yellow whale now overlooks the playground of Danwon High School. At the 4.16 Memorial Classroom, a museum dedicated to the students, the victims’ classrooms are recreated with desks, blackboards and other furniture from the school. Visitors realize the enormity of the loss when the names of all 250 students and 11 teachers who drowned are recited at the end of a video presentation.
“I go to my son’s classroom here to see his name, picture and desk and regain power,” said Jeon In-suk, 51, who lost her only son, Im Kyong-bin, and began working as a volunteer guide at the museum last year. Before that, she had camped out in front of the presidential office in Seoul for three long winter months, demanding an answer to whether official negligence during the rescue operation contributed to the death of her son.
Families talked about the visceral pain that follows them and how cities that undergo tragedies, like Uvalde, Texas, carry the weight of a loss that only victims and relatives can truly understand. But parents also said they have learned there was no way to deal with calamity other than to live through the grief.
Coping With Grief and Loss
Living through the loss of a loved one is a universal experience. But the ways in which we experience and deal with the pain can largely differ.
“You just have to cry when it’s hard; there is no way around it,” said Kim Mi-ok, Ho-jin’s mother. “No one, nothing, can console you.” She has refused to report her son’s death to the government and continues to pay his monthly cellphone bill as if one day she might hear his voice on the other side.
“When I miss him, I lie on his bed, hug his pillow, smell his smell and cry,” said Ms. Kim, 53.
On the day the Sewol ferry sank, live footage of the capsized boat slowly disappearing under the water was broadcast across South Korea. Fishermen and poorly equipped rescuers tried desperately to break windows and save passengers trapped inside. Cellphones salvaged from the wreckage showed videos of children frantically saying goodbye to their parents as the cold waves filled their cabins.
The disaster had been born of greed and negligence. The owner of the Sewol had added extra berths, making the ferry top-heavy. On its final voyage, it was carrying twice the legal limit of cargo, having dumped most of the ballast water that would have helped stabilize it. Regulators ruled the ship seaworthy. But when it made a sharp turn while fighting a strong current, it lost its balance.
As it keeled over, its crew kept urging the passengers through the intercom to wait in their cabins. The first coast guard boat that arrived at the scene did little more than pick up the fleeing crew members, including the captain, Lee Joon-seok, while passengers trapped inside banged on the windows and the ship slowly descended beneath the waves. The government initially told the nation that all the passengers had been rescued. Of the 476 people on board the Sewol, only 172 were rescued.
More than 150 regulators, crew members, ship inspectors and officials from ferry and loading companies have been indicted for their roles in the disaster. South Korea tightened safety rules and made laws to crack down on corruption and companies that put profit ahead of safety.
Ansan families called multiple rounds of government investigations a whitewash because they never properly investigated the role of official incompetence and none of the top officials they held responsible have gone to prison. Angry parents camped out in central Seoul, some on weekslong hunger strikes, demanding a more thorough investigation. A new investigative panel is set to wrap up its work this month.
But as the mourning and investigations have carried on, helping to precipitate the ouster of then-President Park Geun-hye in 2017, many South Koreans, especially conservatives, have said they have had enough, accusing victims’ families of holding the country hostage and angling for bigger compensation packages from the government.
“People think it’s over and they wonder why we continue to protest,” said Kim Byong-kwon, 57, who left Ansan and moved to a new city and didn’t tell his new neighbors that he had lost his daughter, Kim Bitnara, in the Sewol disaster. “But they don’t understand that our pain is not healed, and that nothing has changed.”
Kang Soon-joong, who also lost his daughter, joined an early morning soccer club to keep himself distracted from an onslaught of grief and anger. “Without soccer, I would be dead by now,” said Mr. Kang, 63. He abandoned friends of 50 years after they called the victims’ families “dealers of corpses.”
The most crushing thing of all has been the sense of guilt among parents who feel they failed to protect their children and are haunted by the memories of how they died.
When she first heard the news of the Sewol, Ms. Kim, Ho-jin’s mother, immediately called her son on the ferry. “Mom, don’t worry. I see the coast guard out the window,” Ms. Kim remembered him saying. “I will see you when I get back home.”
When she called him again, he didn’t answer. Ho-jin’s body was recovered 16 days later, and according to Korean funeral custom, he was buried three days afterward. It was May 5, Children’s Day in South Korea.
His father, Lee Yong-ki, took to drinking, weeping alone while driving and listening to music. “Walking on and on along a stream near my home like a woman who lost her mind was all I could do,” Ms. Kim said. “Ho-jin was the first person on earth to call me mom.”
Ho-jeong, one of Ho-jin’s two younger sisters, said she hated spring and the April blossoms because they offer painful reminders every year of her brother’s death. Ho-yoon, the youngest child in the family, began hurting herself after her brother died.
But the family has also started to rebuild.
“My husband constantly had nightmares, kicking his legs and even grabbing me by the collar,” Ms. Kim said. “One night, when I hugged him after he let out a scream, he crouched like a baby. He looked so lonely when I looked at his back.”
This year, Mr. Lee agreed to take medication for anger management and panic disorder. Every Sunday, the family visits a memorial park where Ho-jin is buried. This year, on her birthday on April 19, Ho-jeong for the first time since the sinking asked her family to eat out together.
She sends Ho-jin a Facebook message at midnight every day for fear she might forget him as much of the society has. Mr. Lee said it was important to keep the memories of Sewol victims alive: “We want a safer world where children no longer have to die like ours.”