I’m sitting in a café in South Korea watching footage of rescue boats on a grey, rough sea; charts showing the numbers still missing; timelines in red and blue of fateful decisions. The whole nation is grieving. For almost a week all that has been on TV is the news about the sinking. The ongoing coverage is the only thing on every channel. Everyone is caught up. Giant flat-screen televisions are lit up in every café, every restaurant, every store, all showing the misty grey sea, and graphics tallying up the grim reality. Video of grieving family clashing with police plays over and over again – clipped and re-run constantly — a whole nation caught in a loop of trauma.
The news is, of course, about the ferry Sewol which capsized on its way to Jeju Island from Incheon. 323 students were on board, on a school trip. They were from Danwon High School in Ansan, a city not far from where we live. 280 people were left trapped on the ferry as it overturned and sank.
The worst of it is that the students had been instructed to stay below decks in their rooms, while the crew and 170 others managed to escape. This is the stark character of a nation still so ruled by Confucianism. The news of a problem has to travel up lines of authority to elders often far removed from the scene, and so many times the least capable to handle an emergency. The elder or official makes a remote decision, it takes precious time to receive the formal word, and everyone is expected to dutifully follow directions – even against all sense.
The students were doing what they had been told to do. It took two-and-a-half hours for the vessel to sink, plenty of time for the passengers to have been evacuated, but the crew did not act in accordance with any logical scheme, let alone official protocol. Search and rescue teams have been working against the clock in bad weather on rough seas to try and reach the people that remain trapped in that ferry about 100 meters down. But only a few bodies have been recovered so far, almost a week later.
My students in university classes here are all effected. Emotionally numb, responses muted, they don’t talk easily about it, even though the coverage is blaring from every wall, on every giant flat screen throughout the country. When I asked them they avoided any response at first. Then one of them said: “It’s our fault!” I wondered out loud:
“How could it be your fault?” Another student added:
“We didn’t do enough.”
“What didn’t you do?” I asked,
“We didn’t prevent it!” They all seemed to chime in together.
“What could YOU have done?… What does it have to do with YOU???” My Western, individualistic sensibilities were aghast, while their Eastern, collectivist sensibilities bound together in a cry of mourning and regret. That about sums up the situation here.
- Pray for the families of the students who have died and are still missing.
- Pray for a miracle – although all hope has been given up, God can still save.
- Pray for the nation of Korea: that this terrible disaster can be a wake-up call, and that the tyranny of Confucianism will be dismantled over the people and the land.
- Pray for the people, that each and every one will find hope and joy in a new life in Jesus.
Our hearts are broken at this time. But Jesus can meet every one of us here.