Ten years after South Korean ferry disaster, mothers express their grief on stage

By Thomson Reuters Apr 12, 2024 | 2:09 AM

By Hyun Young Yi and Daewoung Kim

ANSAN, South Korea (Reuters) – For Lee Mi-kyung, whose son was one of the 250 children who died in South Korea’s Sewol ferry disaster 10 years ago, coping with the grief and anger has been incredibly hard. She works through her pain on stage.

“I will no longer hide in darkness, nor be defeated by sorrow, nor cry in despair,” Lee, 58, declares in a play in which seven mothers of children who died in the tragedy portray their journey of mourning.

The play is one of five that Lee and other mothers have performed over the past eight years, each highlighting a different aspect of the tragedy.

Through the plays, they remember their children, mourn and renew calls for justice and answers as to how so many children – who were told to stay in the ship’s cabins – died while the captain and crew escaped.

The 6,800-ton Sewol ferry sank on April 16, 2014, with 476 passengers and crew on board and 304 died, most of them high school children on an excursion to Jeju island.

The scenes of the vessel sinking on live TV stunned the country and outrage has not abated over time.

The ship’s structure had been illegally modified and it was overloaded. Safety regulations were ignored and the vessel’s speed and heavy load caused it to capsize. Rescuers were slow to reach the ship and were largely ineffective when they got there.

The captain is serving a life sentence and other members of the crew are also in jail. But no other people have been found accountable. There have been a number of investigations and inquiries into the disaster but the mothers say none have provided the answers they are seeking.

Lee says she spends a lot of time grieving for her son, Young-man, who was 17 when he died. She finds herself standing on the road where she saw him off to school that day.

“He was much more affectionate than most girls, full of charm, incredibly tender and caring, always chattering away,” she said.

Meeting new people is scary, she said, especially when she has to tell them she is a family member of a Sewol ferry victim. Some of the mothers found it difficult to leave their homes, she added.

Large memorials are planned in Seoul on Saturday and in the school children’s hometown of Ansan on Tuesday to mark the 10-year anniversary.

They will also be thinking of the 159 mostly young people who died in a Halloween day crush two years ago, Lee said.

“We have fought for ten years hoping that a system would be established to prevent such disasters. Yet, despite our efforts, the Itaewon disaster in 2022 saw the loss of many precious children and young adults,” she added.

Park Hae-young, who lost her 17-year-old daughter Yun-min, says her family avoids talking about Yun-min.

“The best thing about doing theatre is that I get to talk a lot about Yun-min, calling out ‘Yun-min, Yun-min, Yun-min’. I really love those moments,” she said.

Her friends will ask if she is OK and she understands they mean well.

“But the truth is, I am not alright. I am really not alright.”

(Reporting by Hyun Young Yi and Daewong Kim; Editing by Jack Kim and Edwina Gibbs)