|Citizens pass by the Sewol ferry disaster memorial site at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul, Tuesday. The tents will be taken down as early as next week and an alternative memorial space will be set up before the fifth anniversary of the disaster on April 16. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
Tents at Sewol memorial site to be taken down next Monday
By Lee Suh-yoon
The Sewol memorial space in central Seoul ― its tents and yellow ribbons now landmark fixtures at Gwanghwamun Square ― will not be around for the fifth anniversary of the Sewol ferry disaster next month.
Families of Sewol victims and the Seoul Metropolitan Government finalized their agreement to remove the tents and replace them with a smaller wooden structure, Tuesday.
The 14 tents will be taken down next Monday, following a special memorial rite the day before to honor the victims before their pictures are moved from the memorial altar.
The city government will set up a 20-meter-long rectangular wooden structure on one side of Gwanghwamun Square before the anniversary on April 16 to display visual records of the Sewol ferry tragedy and other major accidents that left painful imprints on Korean society, most notably the 1994 Seongsu Bridge collapse and the 1995 Sampoong Department Store collapse.
|Photos of Sewol victims are hung on a small archway in the middle of the Sewol memorial site. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
|A man stands in front of a small memorial altar at the Sewol tent site in Gwanghwamun Square last April 16. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
"It won't be an exhibit just for the Sewol ferry tragedy, but for safety issues in general," Ko Wang-woo, a city official, said in a phone interview. "We first thought of using a shipping container box but settled on wood instead to create a more relaxing setting for visitors. As for the content, we are still working out details with the victims' families, but it will likely involve rotations of image- and video-based works."
The exhibit will be organized along a timeline, Ko added, dealing with the past events of the Sewol ferry tragedy, the present state and preparations for the future.
The Jeju-bound Sewol ferry sank off the southwestern coast on April 16, 2014, after it set sail "in an overloaded and defective state," according to a court verdict that ordered compensation to the victims' families last year. The government's response in the first crucial hours of the sinking was slow and botched ― even telling the press at one point that all 475 passengers onboard had been rescued. Later, the public was presented with the harrowing figure ― 304 dead or missing, most of them Danwon High School students on a field trip.
|Visitors write messages and take photos at a special exhibit that was set up last April 16 to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Sewol ferry disaster. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
|A box of small yellow foam ribbons at the Sewol memorial site, Tuesday. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
Set up in July 2014 by civic groups and victims' families to remember the tragedy and call for improved government investigations and safety rules, this site of collective mourning in the square first started with just three tents. The conservative bloc asked the city government to take them down for being "illegal structures," but Mayor Park Won-soon allowed them to stay, saying it was the least the city could do to help the citizens remember and mourn the tragedy. It later grew into a space lined on both sides by seven white tents, one of which held a small memorial altar filled with photographs of the smiling faces of the Danwon students.
The site, and the yellow ribbons distributed here, also became political symbols for change. For many, the ferry disaster became synonymous with the conservative Park Geun-hye administration's incompetence and corruption, and this anger later fueled the massive candlelit protests that shifted power to the more liberal Moon Jae-in government.
|Pope Francis consoles bereaved families of Sewol victims during their hunger strike after his mass at Gwanghwamun Square on Aug. 16, 2014. Korea Times file|
On a drizzling Tuesday morning, the tents were largely empty except for a few tourists who wandered by on their way through the plaza.
"You should have seen it in 2014, when all the Ilbe and other neoliberal group trolls were hanging around," a volunteer who was looking after the site for the day said, referring to when conservatives mocked the fasting families of the Sewol victims by holding a grotesque binge-eating protest in front of the tents.
In front of the quiet site on Tuesday, environmental activists were staging a small rally calling for better protection of national parks. One of the participants, Lee Kyoung-ho, seemed shocked by the news of the site's imminent closure.
|Group photos of Danwon High School students -- the majority of victims of the Sewol ferry disaster -- hang inside one of the tents. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
|A woman takes a photo of a yellow ribbon in front of one of the tents at the Sewol memorial site during the fourth anniversary of the disaster last year. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
"Korea's sensitivity to safety has become totally different after the Sewol ferry disaster," he said, as he hoisted on a backpack, a yellow ribbon dangling from its side zipper. "I know this is supposed to be Gwanghwamun Square, but it is also Sewol Square now. I hope they adequately preserve the meaning of the Sewol ferry disaster here."
Work still remains on uncovering all the facts about the Sewol disaster. Earlier on Monday, victims' family members held a small rally in front of the tents, demanding the prosecution form a special investigative team and arrest main opposition Liberal Korea Party leader Hwang Kyo-ahn, who was the prime minister under the impeached President Park, for sealing the presidential reports given to Park in the first seven hours of the sinking during which the former president's whereabouts were unclear.
"We're not getting rid of the original memorial space, just remodeling it so it's more accessible to citizens," Bae Seo-young, head of the April 16 joint civic committee, told The Korea Times, Wednesday. "We hope the new structure will help people better remember the Sewol ferry disaster and uncover the truth so we can avoid a repetition of such suffering."
|A yellow ribbon badge is seen on a visitor's chest at the fourth anniversary event at Sewol memorial place last year. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
|A man at the memorial site in Gwanghwamun Square, Tuesday, wipes a billboard bearing the faces of five Sewol ferry victims whose bodies have not been recovered. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|