SEOUL, South Korea April 23, 2014— -- The entire country of South Korea, which watched a ferry filled with high school students sink on live TV and has followed the futile search for survivors with 24/7 TV coverage, appears to be have been traumatized by the tragedy.
That trauma has been compounded by a collective shame over charges of criminal negligence by much of the ship's crew, inappropriate reactions by government officials and cruel hoaxes following the sinking.
Almost all entertainment programs that include music, comedy or drama have been cancelled. Attendance at movie theaters is off by as much as 40 percent. Fashion shows, sports events, festivals for major cultural events have been put off through May.
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“It’s not only the victims and their families but a majority of the general public is suffering from mental shock, sadness, rage, and feeling of helplessness,” wrote an editorial from Seoul Newspaper. “In short, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this entire nation is going through post-traumatic stress disorder.”
"After those nonstop broadcasts, personally this visual of cold water rising in the cabins with trapped kids dying a slow death was haunting me for days. I still cry for them," said Yong-sub Choi, vice president of value, culture and media for an investment company. His company has invested $1 million in a regional fireworks festival planned for early May, but decided to forsake half the investment and postpone it to August in honor of the victims.
The tragedy has riveted and horrified the country from the start. Cameras rushed to the ferry sinking as soon as the news broke and the population was mesmerized as it watched the tragedy unfold with students flailing in the cold water, the boat slowly turning upside down and eventually slipping beneath the surface.
Television viewers have barely looked away since as the rescue efforts were broadcast without any break. The arrival of grief stricken families was recorded along with rough weather that hampered rescue efforts, and eventually the sad retrieval of bodies despite the prayers of a nation.
“It was so depressing, so I intentionally avoided watching TV at first,” said Jieun Kim, a mother of two children living in Seoul. “But it’s addictive. You keep wondering what happened. Gave up on the fourth day, and kept watching. My tears won’t stop. It’s uncontrollable.”
What has also taken a toll on the Korean psyche are the alleged acts of cowardice, callousness and cruel hoaxes.
Eleven of the ferry's crew, including the captain, have been taken into custody for actions that the South Korean president said were "murderous." Others would say craven. In the days after the ferry sank, families were tormented with hoax text messages claiming to be from students trapped in air pockets complaining that they were cold, but still alive. A woman posed as one of the divers trying to rescue the trapped passengers was exposed as a fraud.
A photo of a government official sitting on a chair to eat ramen while the families of the ferry victims were eating on the floor circulated on South Korean social media and criticism poured in. A second official from the ministry of security and public administration came under even more criticism for posing for a self-promoting photo in front of the list of the dead at the gymnasium where families were sheltered. That official was suspended and then allowed to resign.
The response to the sinking has forced the nation to reassess what Korea has become.
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A widely shared editorial on social networks from Saturday’s Joongang Ilbo concluded with a scathing self-criticism that, “A nation’s standards and capability is tested when disaster and crisis come by. Our country’s level is a failing grade and of a third-class country.”
“Korea is now depressed," an editorial in Hankyoreh newspaper said. "But for such collective depression to be rightly cured, this atmosphere should not be quickly changed nor forgotten.”
Choi added, "As a father, this burden is deep. I feel responsible for the deaths of those innocent young kids. Our generation have marched forward only looking ahead. It was all economic growth and wealth. We neglected to take effort to mature ethically."
“Koreans are very nationalistic and they take pride in the rapid development of their country. When there’s some problem or anything that reflects poorly on the collective, on the nation or Koreans on the whole, people will get upset about it,” said Daniel Pinkson, head of International Crisis Group in Seoul.
Yellow ribbons have proliferated on Korean social media and the country has held candlelight vigils, but those gestures have gone only so far.
“Koreans want to share everything together," said Sulim Park, public relations manager of Italian shoe brand, Tod’s. The company cancelled three shows and events out of respect for the ferry victims. "My family or friends were not personally affected by this tragedy, but call it nationalism or whatever, but we try to share the grief together.”