Sewol

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As I’m sure you’ve seen in the news, South Korea is devastated over the loss of life in the Sewol Ferry tragedy.  There are confusing, conflicting responses to this tragedy, really the first major national catastrophe since the country was created after the Korean War.  For a culture that so highly values trust and respect, the idea of departmental and government oversights causing a loss of life this immense is overwhelming.  Just today, the country’s prime minister 정홍원 (Jeong Hong Won) resigned amid a hail of controversy about government inefficiency.  Distraught parents have threatened to march on the Blue House (South Korea’s presidential residence) in protest and are vocally and emotionally castigating a government they feel has failed to save their children.  

As I’m sure you’ve seen in the news, South Korea is devastated over the loss of life in the Sewol Ferry tragedy.  There are confusing, conflicting responses to this tragedy, really the first major national catastrophe since the country was created after the Korean War.  For a culture that so highly values trust and respect, the idea of departmental and government oversights causing a loss of life this immense is overwhelming.  Just today, the country’s prime minister 정홍원 (Jeong Hong Won) resigned amid a hail of controversy about government inefficiency.  Distraught parents have threatened to march on the Blue House (South Korea’s presidential residence) in protest and are vocally and emotionally castigating a government they feel has failed to save their children.  

I don’t know enough about the issue to point fingers.  If the ferry was like any bus, train, or subway I’ve ever ridden in this country, I’m sure it was overcrowded.  I’m sure captain and surviving crew made a host of mistakes in terms of organizing the ship’s evacuation and coordinating rescue efforts, not the least of which was leaving the ship without first ensuring their passengers’ safety.  However, I also know that weather conditions immediately following the accident were miserable and extremely windy here in Busan.  Additionally, the water here is frigid and seas can get pretty rough, which I’m sure impeded rescue efforts and created an enormous job for the divers.  I’m sure someone will be judged grievously at fault for the incident and the botched rescue that accompanied it.  I hope that over the next couple of years changes in safety and inspection policies will prevent another similar tragedy from happening.

However, more than pondering the physics of sinking ships and the politics of governmental corruption, I find myself flat-out mourning the loss of so many young lives.  As a teacher, I have attended my fair share of funerals for students who passed away too soon, but I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a part of the Ansan Danwon High School community right now.  Just think about attending a school that has lost nearly a third of its student population.  Think about being one of the few surviving members of Danwon’s sophomore class and having to face graduation next year–or even classes for that matter.  Consider being a teacher and gazing out over all those empty desks, or a principal supervising a too-empty hallway during class changes.  The impact has to be staggering.

Now compound this by adding in cultural ramifications.  South Korea is a country in population crisis, where many couples choose to have small families or no children at all.  Though not mandated like China’s one child policy, the high cost of child-rearing in Korea has led many couples to forego or delay marriage and childbirth.  Currently, the RoK government is attempting to deal with issues like how to populate a workforce in a country that isn’t producing enough children.  A myriad of changes in attitudes about marriage, women in the work force, and child-rearing have resulted in one of the lowest birth rates in the world and a country that, if this trend continues, may be looking at a population decrease in the next generation.  The issue is so severe that the government offers financial assistance to all pregnant mothers (even foreigners) in the hopes of encouraging people to start families.  Now imagine the tragic loss of hundred of children from a single community.

Furthermore, Korea has one of the world’s highest suicide rates, especially among teenagers.  A recent poll from the Korean Health Promotion Foundation found that more than half of Korean teens admitted to having suicidal thoughts, with more than a third describing themselves as “very depressed”.  Suicide is currently the leading cause of death for Koreans aged 15-24, surpassing even car accidents.  In a country where so many children are already at risk of self-destructive behavior, the issue of providing effective and accessible mental health resources for students is paramount in the wake of a tragedy like the Sewol disaster.

In the meantime, the country as a whole remains in deep mourning, with celebratory events cancelled or postponed out of respect for the victims and their families.  Television programming schedules have been altered, and even the normally raucous Korean baseball season is off to a somber start with cheering, dancing, and game time festivities halted out of respect.  Kpop stars, Korean actors, and citizens have posted yellow ribbons and “Pray for Korea” photos on their social media pages as a sign of solidarity for those directly affected by the tragedy.  As one of my colleagues indicated this week, no one is really sure when life as normal will resume here because nothing like this has ever happened before.  The loss of life, particularly young life, on such a large scale is tremendous.  How does one even begin to grieve a tragedy of this magnitude?

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Filed under: Uncategorized Tagged: Korea, Sewol, Teen Suicide, yellow ribbons



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