Kim Young-oh: A Reluctant Icon
Kim Young-oh, the father of a Sewol ferry victim, went on a hunger striker for 46 days, calling for an independent body of inspectors to investigate fully and transparently into the disaster. Not everyone in the nation approved of his desperate cry for the truth, but he certainly commanded the attention of all, including Pope Francis who visited Korea in August.
During the course of his 46-day fast, Kim emerged as an icon, rather reluctantly, against the increasing repression in South Korea.
His desire to do right by his deceased child thrust him onto the national stage, before a divided public, under the harsh spotlight of media’s attention. His personal life was ruthlessly divulged. Right-wing rallies took place to vilify and discredit him; some staged a binge fest near his tent in Gwanghwamun to mock him and his followers, even as he wasted away.
Kim’s struggle and transformation is symbolic of what the bereaved families have been going through in the post-Sewol South Korea. It has been almost a year since the ferry sank, but an official investigation has yet to begin. After winning the by-election in July by a landslide, the government and the ruling party have largely turned a blind eye on the families. The disaster became politicized and eventually polarized the nation, thereby marginalizing the victims’ families and leaving them in a limbo.
Many bereaved parents question the government’s willingness to help the probe and own accountability, and quit their jobs to seek answers about the circumstances of their children’s deaths. Once ordinary citizens and parents, their lives are turned upside-down. Sewol means “passing of time” in Korean. They continue their solitary fight and endure the passing of time, as the public grow increasingly impatient, apathetic and hostile towards them.