story by JULIE HA
photographs by ALEX COREY/EL NUEVO SOL
Dressed in yellow jackets, black T-shirts, dark slacks and sneakers, Park Hye-young and Hong Young-mee sat at the head of the classroom at the California State University Northridge campus, with their backs to the whiteboard and 35 students seated in front of them. The pair was far from home. Just two days earlier, the women had flown into Los Angeles from Ansan, South Korea, to embark on a press tour that would also take them to San Francisco, Chicago, Houston and New York. Their mission: to share their story, so that the truth about what cut their children’s lives tragically short would finally come out.
Park and Hong are “Sewol Ummas,” as one of them put it—their children perished in the South Korean ferry sinking one year ago, on April 16. Choi Yoon-meen, Park’s daughter, and Lee Jae-wook, Hong’s son, were among the 250 sophomores from Ansan’s Danwon High School who were aboard the Sewol, on their way to the scenic Jeju Island for a class field trip, when the ferry made a sharp turn, tilted and capsized off the coast of Jindo Island. A total of 304 people died, with 172 rescued, in one of the country’s worst maritime disasters, which had the East Asian nation in collective mourning for months.
That sadness soon turned into anger and resolve for the families of the dead, after it was revealed that the tragedy could have been avoided. In trials for the ferry company, crew and regulatory officials, prosecutors said that the Sewol had been carrying twice its legal limit of cargo and the original ship had also been unsafely remodeled to fit more passengers. The ship’s captain was convicted and sentenced to 36 years in prison for abandoning the ferry and not first evacuating passengers—many of whom were told by the crew to stay put. Even the Coast Guard was criticized for a botched rescue effort.
The incident seemed to hold a critical mirror to a nation that at once appeared an economic powerhouse and success story, but was in reality still mired in corruption and lax public safety, which have been the modus operandi for decades.
Those who lost the most are leading an effort to change their country, starting with a demand for the full truth behind what happened in the Sewol disaster.
Invited by a group of first-generation Korean American mothers supporting the Sewol moms, Park and Hong made a stop at the CSUN campus on March 6 to speak to a journalism class taught by Korean American professor Tae-hyun Kim. Kim happened to know one of the members of the Korean American group that organized and funded the mothers’ visit. He saw this as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for his “Introduction to News Reporting” students.
It also apparently marked the first time Park and Hong, who wore lanyards with their children’s pictures on them, addressed a non-Korean audience during their U.S. tour, which also included a screening of Diving Bell, a film about the Sewol incident. The students in Kim’s classroom that day—including 20 students from a Spanish-language TV production class taught by Mexican American documentary filmmaker Anayansi Prado—was roughly 70 percent Latino and 30 percent white; there was one Asian in the class.
“They were very, very nervous before they came to campus,” said Kim, who interpreted during the Q&A of Park and Hong. “The mothers thought the students might not relate or connect with them. But they were really surprised that many of the students were well-informed about the details of the disaster and they asked very pointed, critical questions about the actions of the [Korean] media and government.”
A touching and unexpected discovery, Kim said, was how much the mothers’ story resonated with many of his Central American students, who pointed out that in their native countries, there have been tragedies involving drug cartel violence and missing children. They, too, have seen mothers protest their own government’s inadequate response.
“You would think they would care less about issues from a Far East country, but no, there was clearly a connection,” Kim said.
In fact, many of his students told him that they didn’t need to understand the language of the mothers to feel their anguish; their voices, their eyes, their tone “were enough to convey their horrifying experience and how much they are missing their children, how much they are disappointed with their government.”
“It was for me one of those defining moments,” said student Hunter Long. “It touched me enough that I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.” Long said he hopes, as a journalist, he can “help expose the maladies in society and make a difference in some way … to expose the truth.”
Following is an edited transcript of the students’ question-and-answer session with the Sewol moms.
Q&A with the Sewol Ummas
Student Question: As we were discussing in class, we noticed there were inconsistencies in how journalists portrayed the events. What did you think of the Korean media’s reporting?
Park Hye-young: When we were first going down to Paengmokhang (the port in Jindo County), we were told in the news that all of our children were rescued. But when we arrived, we saw a list of survivors posted on the wall, and what we were told was that the rest of the children [who weren’t on that list] were on their way from where the ship sank. So we waited for two hours until we were told that there were no more people coming. That’s when the mothers started to sense that something was really going on.
Because the media reported that everyone was safe, I felt like that became a detriment to the beginning stages of rescue operations.
Hong Young-mee: The biggest problem at Paengmokhang was that, even though there were so many journalists there, not all the facts were being reported to the outside. I felt like there was someone behind the scenes who was preventing those facts from being publicized. The journalists interviewed us and photographed everything there, but we felt like not much of the information they acquired from us was actually being reported. For example, the media reported that everyone was rescued in the morning, but it was only in the afternoon when we learned that the reality was different. So we were left wondering where the rest of our children went.
What really should’ve been reported was the fact that many of the children were trapped in the ship and that the ship was sinking, but that’s not what the media was reporting. So the parents went down there and spent the entire day and night asking where our kids were. Ultimately, the media reports changed from everyone rescued to everyone dead. From then on, the media began reporting that the size of the rescue operations is the biggest in history of all maritime disasters and that the operations were ongoing even during the night, but what the parents saw there was that there was no sufficient lighting system for the rescuers to carry out proper operations. And the media used the same footage of the one time that the rescuers were going underwater for three days, when the reality was that the operations weren’t happening consistently.
What do you think is the root cause of the Korean media’s misguided reporting?
Park: In a way, the journalists weren’t confirming what they were reporting. They were reporting speculation. There was no fact-checking, and obviously that’s problematic.
Hong: There was no control tower. As soon as one media outlet reported something that wasn’t true, all of the other media outlets reported the same thing without verifying the information.
Park: At first, there wasn’t even an exact number of how many people were missing and how many were found dead. Those numbers varied depending on the media outlets, and we had no idea what the exact numbers were. The government couldn’t even verify the simple facts.
Is it true that people who were posting videos they recorded at the scene were punished?
Hong: There was a civilian rescue diver who was able to go underwater and see what was going on. When that person came out and spoke to us, the video of that started spreading through social media. And later, that diver was arrested and had to stand trial.
Park: What that person was saying was that there were many civilian divers who came to carry out rescue operations, but they were being blocked from doing that by the Coast Guard officials, who said that it was too dangerous.
Hong: There was also a situation when one of the civilian divers questioned the Coast Guard during a press conference. He was saying that what the Coast Guard officials were saying about the rescue operations wasn’t true and that the operations weren’t being carried out properly. But he was later physically forced to leave the room. Those kind of things happened quite frequently.
Now that it’s been a year, how has the government responded to all of this?
Park: The government doesn’t seem interested in checking the facts. What we want is not financial compensation. We just want to know why our children had to die. It is our feeling that the government is trying to cover up what happened, rather than making efforts to tell us the truth. The reason we’re going around to talk about this is because we’re trying to gather support to find out what really happened.
How much faith do you have in the group that was launched by the government to investigate the Sewol disaster?
Park: We cannot trust it 100 percent. What we wanted initially was a bill that would allow us [the family of the victims] complete control over investigating the issue, because we believed that was the only way to get what we really want. But instead, the bill that the government passed only fulfills half of what we demanded.
What can people in America do to help the Sewol victims and their families?
Hong: The whole incident itself and why such a tragedy occurred is something that’s really difficult to understand. Because of that, there are so many questions surrounding the issues. There are even conspiracy theories. Even though there is a list of questions, there are only question marks, but no real answers to the questions. The families of the victims are trying hard to find answers to those questions, while it seems like the government is trying to prevent that from happening, since such revelations could lead to bigger societal issues. What we ask of our supporters in America is to join us in making one voice in asking for the truth. If enough people around the world realize that there are hidden truths to be revealed and make an organized effort to demand what we want to know, it’ll help us find out why our children had to die.
Park: The government is trying not to reveal those things. The only thing we can do is to continue to put pressure on them. The families of the victims in Korea are trying our best to put pressure on the government and if people around the world can help us build stronger pressure by making our voices louder, that will be very helpful.
Are you worried about backlash you could suffer by confronting the government like this?
Park: We are parents who lost our children. No situation could be worse for us. We’re doing this to find out why our children had to die, so what the government may do to stop us or create distractions won’t matter. When my child died, I already acknowledged that half of me died, too. There’s nothing that will scare me. Of course, at first, we were worried about what may happen if we continued to fight against the government. But in the end, all mothers share the same feelings. Even if there may be consequences, I’m going to keep doing what I need to do.
Hong: When and if the government ignores the feelings of parents who have lost their children, that’s equivalent to the country turning a blind eye on its people. The families aren’t afraid at all about possible consequences.
As the ferry was sinking, were you able to exchange text messages or call your children?
Park: For me, personally, I saw the news on TV that the Sewol ferry was sinking. I called my daughter immediately. She picked up. It was around 9:30 [a.m.]. I asked if she was OK, and she told me that all of the kids were wearing life vests and were sitting in a line. She said that the ship was tilted, but that she was OK. So, as a parent, what I thought at that point was that everyone inside the ship realized that the vessel was sinking … It seemed like they were waiting to be saved. So I thought my child would be rescued in no time. I thought, “OK, no problem.” She wasn’t rescued. The last time I was able to talk to my daughter was 9:40 via KakaoTalk. I asked if everything was OK. She said, “I’m fine.” We’re guessing that the ferry capsized entirely at around 10:10.
What were you thinking when you weren’t able to get in touch with her anymore?
Park: I was told that everyone was saved at first. And I also realized that she was in the middle of the ocean. So when I couldn’t reach her, I assumed that she was already rescued and that she was staying on a nearby island, waiting to get sent back.
My child was found eight days after the ferry capsized. When we found her cell phone, we were able to retrieve a lot of important data, and also learned that her phone was fully functioning by 10:00.
Hong: I couldn’t speak to my son. I called him at around 9:40, but he didn’t pick up. So I texted him, but never heard back.
Will there be any anniversary events?
Park: In Korea, we’re gathering on April 15 at Paengmok. On the 16th, we will meet at the Memorial Center in Ansan, and later that night, we’re going to have a very big rally.
When you do rallies, have there been cases of the police trying to stop you?
Park: It’s not so much that they stop us, but when we have a rally with 200 people, we will have 2,000 policemen around us. They surround us, so that we can’t move around. We’re pretty much trapped with them surrounding us.
During rallies, are there suspicious people around you?
Park: All the time. We call them policemen in civilian clothes. We’ve been seeing them from back in Paengmokhang. When we were in Paengmokhang, there are three types of people. One group is the families, and then there are journalists and the other group is policemen wearing civilian clothes.
Why do you think that the Korean government is trying to hide the truth behind this tragedy?
Park: We have about 300 congressmen in our country. I don’t think the Sewol case could be seen as a simple accident. It happened because of a combination of different factors, including corruption and illegal political and business relationships. We talk about this amongst us all the time. The congressmen who’ve been re-elected two times or more are somehow associated with the Sewol tragedy one way or the other. And because it’s something that they’re directly associated with, they’re reluctant to open up and let the truth be told.
Realistically, do you believe that the victims’ families will get their wish?
Hong: Realistically, we think that it’s impossible under the current administration. But if we can reveal just a little bit more of what really happened behind this tragedy, we’re going to do everything we can. Obviously, we desperately wish to reveal 100 percent of the hidden truths, but that could take 20 to 30 years.
Park: We’ll never get to know if everything has been revealed. But we’re just trying to make the world a better place. What we consider important is the willingness to work for those things.
What advice would you give to aspiring journalists who could one day cover a tragedy like this?
Park: Media plays such an important role. It’s simple. Report what you really see. Report the facts. In Korea, it’s a little different. Certain stories just can’t get out without approval.
Hong: All of you sitting here are future members of the media, and you’ll have the responsibility to tell the truth to your generation. My opinion is that the history of the world has so far has been written by people with power and it’s also been distorted by people with power. I just hope that the future journalists can have a sense of responsibility as people who have the power to write truthful history. As long as that sense of responsibility is there, I’m certain that the truth will always win out.
What’s the origin of the yellow ribbons?
Hong: The color yellow means a lot of things. Love, warmth, kind heart and sense of safety.
Park: It’s now become the color that symbolizes the Sewol tragedy.
—Translation by Steve Han