On April 16th 2014, the MV Sewol, a ferry bound for the island of Jeju, capsized off the coast of Jindo County, the South-westernmost region of South Korea. Out of the 476 people on board, 304 died – most of them from Danwon High School in the city of Ansan.
The Sewol disaster is one of the biggest human catastrophes in South Korea’s recent history and has triggered a significant amount of perplexity and soul-searching among its citizens. How could a disaster of this magnitude occur in such a technologically advanced country? Why were the rescue efforts so uncoordinated and inefficient? Is South Korea’s “palli palli” (fast) culture to blame; putting profit ahead of people’s safety?
The families of the victims have been looking for answers ever since and continue to demand that an independent inquiry shed light on what really happened. Our guest for this episode, Jun Michael Park, has been following the Sewol families in their struggles, documenting their lives in the aftermath of the tragedy and their quest for truth and justice. We talk about his work, what the Sewol families are trying to achieve, and how we can explain the hatred far-right groups have demonstrated against them.
Jun Michael Park is a documentary photographer and visual storyteller from Seoul. He has worked for Der Spiegel, Welt am Sonntag, Cicero Magazine and Brand Eins in Germany, as well as Greenpeace East Asia, Save the Children, Asia Society Korea Center and many more. Jun is a winner of a Silver Award in the Press-Feature Story category at Prix de la Photographie Paris (Px3) 2015 and is selected for this year’s Eddie Adams Workshop in New York.
Your simple news story [at the time of the sinking]: the entire nation was in mourning, everyone was devastated and outraged that something like that could happen in this modern Korea. […] However as all the families of the passengers eventually became the families of the deceased, they started demanding answers regarding why the children had to die and why the rescue efforts failed. And the family struggle became more of a social activism cause. […] The whole context, the connotation surrounding Sewol has changed during the past year and now I come off as taking a side [because the Sewol has become politicized]. It also means that many have lost sympathies towards the families.
The original interview was conducted on August 11th in Seoul and appeared in Korea and the World Podcast.
Correction: In the interview, I made two numerical errors.
- There are 75 surviving students, not 50.
- The late dictator-president Park Chung-hee’s reign lasted for 18 years, not 26.
I apologize for my mistake.