Park Jee-yung dropped out of college, and went to work on a Korean domestic ferry, when her father passed on, two years ago. It’s what Korean children do for their families, in the Confucian tradition of filial piety. Two weeks ago, Miss Park found herself, along with nearly 400 other young people and 75 elders, on an ill-fated journey to Jeju, Korea’s holiday mecca, some 60 miles off the southwest tip of the Korean Peninsula. This journey entailed sailing from a port in the Seoul area, and thus a potentially treacherous voyage through countless areas of rock and reef. The story of how the journey ended is gradually unfolding: Essentially, an inexperienced and unconfident helmsman, scarcely more than a child herself, lost her way and the ship foundered into a mess of rocks. It’s not certain where the ship’s captain was during this time, but it is notable that he left the ship while most of his passengers remained aboard, and the ship was going inexorably down.
Park Jee-yung stayed with the teenagers, going as many places on board as time allowed, finding life vests for her younger charges and trying to get as many on board life rafts as she could. Survivors reported that Miss Park repeatedly refused to leave the ship, saying it was the crew’s duty, and thus hers, to be the last to leave. So it went- for her, and possibly other crewmates, though not for the senior ship officials. This has become de rigeur, in recent years, for the crews of troubled vessels, but I digress.
I lived in Korea, on Jeju, for 5 1/2 years. The vast majority of the people I met were like Park Jee-yung- bright, organized, and self-effacing. I can only imagine the horror that has engulfed this blessed nation, whose traditions dictate that a people move forward together, that the needs of the whole trump the whims of the parts, that children mind their elders, without question.
So it went, that horrific day. The aging ship’s captain issued an order to the students on board to stay in their cabins. A few rowdy boys chose to challenge that order and went on deck, saw what was happening and, rallying some of their schoolmates, managed to get on board the life vessels and to safety. One of them was the first to issue a distress call to the mainland. These were among the people helped by Park Jee-yun.
There is much to admire about Korean society. Few nations could have risen out of the ashes of war, largely on their own, as South Korea has. Shoulder to shoulder, Koreans have seen what was needed, and brought it about. Now it is time to take stock of the price of fragmentation- nearly 160 dead, as I write this, and hundreds more still missing. I sit here, in the comfort of an American home, and feel only grief and sorrow. So many beautiful souls, who could have only elevated life in their city of Ansan, and beyond, now sit at the Throne of the God of us all, and wait to see just how they might comfort those who miss them so grievously.
Let Korea continue to move forward as an entity, with the caveat that sometimes, many times, the voices of the rambunctious need to be heard. The gadflies among us frequently see things the masses overlook, and their warnings, however irritating at the get-go, turn out to be what save the day. Cassandra was not altogether insane.
Rest in peace, beautiful friends, and may the nation you left too soon regroup, restore its sense of balance and move forward, in unison.