Nearly a year after their son’s death, Ahn Joo-hyun’s parents were faced with an uncomfortable question: how to mark their son’s first birthday since his death at the age of just 16.
Joo-hyun was one of the more than 300 who died in April 2014 when the Sewol ferry sank off South Korea’s southwest coast. He was traveling with his classmates and teachers on a trip to Jeju, a holiday island.
The school trip was organized to effectively mark the end of the third-year students’ childhoods, and give them one last chance to have fun before going into all-out study mode for South Korea’s university entrance exam, a competitive test that goes a long way to determining placement at university, and then job prospects after that.
With Joo-hyun’s birthday falling just before the April 16 anniversary of the disaster, his parents decided to hold a party that would celebrate their son’s life while also providing a forum for collective grieving.
Though a year has passed since the Sewol sinking, the families and many others in South Korea are still grieving over one of the country’s worst peacetime disasters.
Bereaved families are still pushing the government to investigate the causes and circumstances of the sinking, as details about how the ferry’s voyage managed to go so wrong are still not known. The government has formed an investigative body, but its work hasn’t started yet due to disagreements over its scope and composition.
In remembrance of their son, Joo-hyun’s parents rented a room at a center specializing in birthday parties in Ansan, their home city, just over an hour south of Seoul, the South Korean capital.
Mementos and memorabilia from Ju-hyun's life are displayed to mark his birthday (Photo by Jun Michael Park)
Joo-hyun grew up in Ansan, the community most affected by the Sewol tragedy, and around 250 of those lost were students or staff from nearby Danwon High School, where Joo-hyun studied.
The streets of Ansan are still lined with banners expressing condolences for those who died, and the government still operates a memorial altar, where mourners can lay a carnation in front of the hundreds of funeral portraits.
On a Saturday morning in early spring, Joo-hyun’s birthday party was held in a room full of wet eyes and sniffles, with family and friends passing around a microphone, reading prepared statements addressed to him, sharing their memories of time spent together and expressing sadness over his loss.
One high school boy took the microphone and said that his strongest memories of his lost friend were of the two of them fishing and playing soccer. He says, “Joo-hyun, I think of you when the sky is clearest. It has now been a year since I saw you. I wish we were together.”
A table display had a portrait of Joo-hyun, along with his guitar and snacks that he enjoyed.
During their turn with the microphone, some of Joo-hyun’s friends told stories about him that his parents had never heard before — of ignoring their studies to play games or fool around. Joo-hyun’s mother Kim Jung-hae says she learned things about how her son spent his time that she hadn’t known. Kim says she believed her son was actually studying diligently whenever he said he was at the library.
In South Korea, high school students are typically under pressure from their parents to get high grades in school, in order to get into a prestigious university and have a better chance of finding a good job. For many youths, this means little free time with friends.
“I regret that I only ever imposed studying on him. Through his friends I’ve learned more about him. Coming here today, I’m glad to hear that he had more life experience than I had thought,” Kim says.
“Hearing that he misbehaved actually gives me some peace of mind.”
Kim Jeong-hae (right), Ju-hyun's mother, pulls out candles from a birthday cake, while friends and relatives watch. Had he been alive, Ju-hyun would have turned 18 on March 28 (Photo by Jun Michael Park)
Since the tragedy, families in Ansan affected by the sinking have banded together to support each other. Experts say having a framework for the bereaved families to spend time together can assist in their recovery.
“Just getting together and sharing emotions, and stories can help bereaved families feel less alone, and ease their suffering,” says Choi Ho-seon, a lecturer in psychology at Yeungnam University who has counseled victims' families.
But parents also say that there are some in Ansan who aren’t thrilled with the extended grieving.
“Some people wish we’d just give it up,” says Kim Hyun-dong, father of Da-young, a girl from Joo-hyun’s school who died in the sinking.
Ansan is a low-income community, and some residents have argued that being associated with tragedy will drive down property values and discourage investment.
Families have said that as long as all the details of the sinking aren’t publicly known, they won’t be able to shrug off the loss of their children and move on.
Kim says that having regular contact with other families affected by the Sewol sinking has made dealing with the loss of her son more manageable.
“I feel depressed when I’m at home alone. If I cry outside people frown at me. Here I can cry and people understand.”