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South Koreans overwhelmed with guilt
02:17 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Thousands pay their respects at a memorial in Ansan

Even those without a connection to the disaster are heartbroken

Yellow ribbons have become a symbol of mourning

CNN  — 

The middle-aged man stands in line, patiently waiting. He’s wearing the de facto uniform of the Seoul businessman, a fitted black suit and thin tie. He’s driven an hour to be here at the memorial site at Ansan, joining the 100,000 mourners paying their respects before the school portraits of children who will never grow old.

“I’m a father of two kids,” he weeps, his hand firmly over his chest, as if to press in a breaking heart. “I just am very sorry because I can do nothing for these families. I just want to come here to say I’m very sorry to these families.”

He knew no one aboard the Sewol ferry – his life in Seoul should be blissfully separate from the unfolding disaster at sea. But he embodies the grief, guilt and anger that leaves virtually no one in South Korea untouched.

Nation in yellow

The main road into Jindo is lined with yellow. Every 6 feet, another yellow ribbon waves in the wind of the passing cars. At Danwon High School in Ansan, where the junior class lost three quarters of its students in the ferry disaster, yellow ribbons are tied at the gates. But these ribbons didn’t start at the disaster site or the school.

In the nation that refers to itself as the most wired in the world, South Korea’s ribbons began online, as a simple yellow square with the outline of a bow. University students designed the image and began to spread it on an instant messaging site in South Korea called Kakao Talk on April 19. The meaning began as a hopeful one, “one small step, big miracle.” As the death toll continues to rise, it’s evolved into a national sign of grief.

People are tying ribbons to their homes and schools across the country. The ribbons prominently appear on television news programs nearly every half hour, somber music sometimes playing underneath the slow-motion images of the yellow across the country. The prim presenters of South Korea’s television programs, whose female anchors tend to favor hot pink and royal blue, are all wearing grey and black suits. One story dominates the news channels – the Sewol ferry disaster, from the investigation to the national mourning.

On Korean language Twitter and Facebook, users share their grief in short messages with a yellow ribbon. Overwhelmingly, the messages tend to focus on a sense of rage and helplessness. “I am sorry that I couldn’t rescue you and help you,” Twitter user @sbja22 wrote.

Children, a nation’s treasure

The palpable desire to rescue the victims centers around who the passengers are – students from Danwon High School. Juniors in South Korea’s high schools have traditionally been granted a special outing or field trip before notoriously rigorous college entrance exams. The teenagers who boarded the Sewol ferry were experiencing a national rite of passage that turned to horror.

Children in South Korea are considered a family’s treasure, the ones who have traditionally been doted on and showered with attention. Obedience in the young is prized. Parental protection is the reward.

The Sewol disaster tears through much of the cultural structure expected in modern Korean society of children and elders. The first emergency call from the doomed ferry came from a Danwon student, 17-year-old Choi Duk-ha.

“Save us. We are on a ship, and I think it’s sinking,” he pleaded as he called emergency services. The adults on the ship failed to make the first distress call and would follow three minutes later. Choi Duk-ha would die on the Sewol ferry.

The crew, the ones trained to protect the passengers, issued a ship-wide announcement for passengers to remain in their cabins, instead of heading to the deck and the life rafts. The high school students, raised in that culture of obedience, overwhelmingly listened to that announcement. Survivors say the passengers who listened to that order were the ones who never made it off.

The crew then abandoned ship, being some of the first rescued by the coast guard. Television news broadcast images fueling national outrage – the captain jumping into a rescue boat as his young passengers remained trapped, wearing life vests that prevented them from swimming out of flooding rooms.

Systemwide failure