In light of the recent events, I have been asked about the Sewol Ferry and its connections to BTS, so here we go: heavy topics ahead.
Sensitive topics ahead!
If you are sensitive to the topics of death, disasters, or corruption, do NOT read on.
You might have heard that BTS donated a large amount of money to the families of the victims of the Sewol Ferry incident. BTS were never one to shy away from controversies or politically sensitive subjects. This comeback is no different. The song 'Spring Day' and the music video seem to reference the Sewol Ferry Incident.
In this post I'll tell you about the Sewol incident, what it means for Koreans and why it's a huge deal that BTS donated money to the cause!
The Sewol Ferry Incident
On the 16th of April 2014, a ferry by the name of Sewol capsized and sank.
Most of the passengers on the Sewol Ferry that day were high school students from Danwon High School, who were on a field trip to Jeju island.
304 passengers and crew members died.
The ferry carried a total of 476 people when it capsized, leaving only 172 alive.
Below is a class photo of some of the Sewol survivors with their classmates who did not survive.
One of the survivors was Kang Minkyu, the vice principal of Danwon High School, who committed suicide a few days after the disaster and wrote in his suicide note:
"[...] Scatter my ashes at the site of the sunken ferry so that in the afterlife I may become a teacher to my students who have not been rescued."
The incident shook South Korea to the core.
It was not just because the fact that 250 high school students passed away in the tragedy, but because of the circumstances that led to the incident in the first place, and because of a serious failure to handle the incident from rescuers and the government.
The Sewol Ferry was a ferry that sailed from Incheon to Jeju Island three times a week.
Roughly a 14 hour trip.
Ever since it first started operating on the line in 2013, its regular captain reported that the ship had navigational problems and steering problems.
On the 15th of April 2014 (the night before the ferry sank), there was heavy fog in Incheon. After two and a half hour delay, the ferry left anyways; the only ship to leave port that evening.
The usual Captain did not sail on the Ferry and instead a replacement Captain was in charge.
The Ferry sailed throughout the night, but the problem only arose when morning came.
The Captain wasn't on the bridge for most of the morning. In command was Third Mate Park Hangyeol who had one year of prior experience.
During the morning the Sewol Ferry entered the Maenggol Channel. A shallow channel known for severe underwater currents. It was the Third Mate's first time steering through the channel.
I'll repeat: the Captain was not on the bridge.
At 8:48 the Third Mate came to believe that they were on a collision course with another ship. The Third Mate gave the order to turn, first a five degree turn and then an additional five degree turn.
Instead of taking the turns one at a time, the equally inexperienced Helmsman executed the orders as they came in and made a ten degree turn, immediately. A turn much too great for the ship to handle.
The Third Mate ordered the ship to be brought back, to restore balance, but the helmsman was flustered, and turned the wheel even more. Then the ship began to tilt.
Problems with the Sewol Ferry
In its early years, from 1994 to 2012, the Sewol Ferry sailed for a Japanese company and when it was auctioned off in 2012, it had already been sailed hard for 18 years and was in a sorry state.
It needed repairs.
And it got repairs, but with a "little" illegal redesign.
To increase the passenger capacity, additional passenger decks were added to the upper deck levels. This added 187 tons to the Ferry's total weight, but more importantly it shifted the gravitational point of the ship's weight.
Now I'm going to go under the assumption that many of you reading this aren't sailors or ship builders, so as a passionate sailor myself, I'm going to attempt to explain why this is so significant, with a very short physics lesson.
If pushed, which of the two boxes to the right will be most likely to fall over? The tall one, right? It's the same principal for a boat, which is why if you're in a small sailing boat, you should always sit down to make it more stable on the water.
Do you see the issue now? By adding so much weight to the top of the ship, they turned it into a tall box, which meant that it swayed more, didn't rest as well in the water, and this in turn impaired the ability to steer the ship properly.
Adding too much cargo, did the same thing again, and worsened the odds. They were sailing with three times the permitted cargo when the ship tipped. Three times!
Despite the illegal modifications, the South Korean Registry of Shipping approved the Sewol Ferry for service and demanded that the ferry sail with 2000 tons of water as ballast to improve balance.
Which, of course they didn't do.
Just writing this is making me angry...
Why did it capsize?
On February 2014, mere months before the ship capsized and sank, the Sewol Ferry passed a Safety Inspection by the South Korean Coastal Guard. And yet it happened.
1. Inexperienced crew members had the command while navigating problematic waters
A responsible captain would have been on the bridge when they began to sail up the narrow channel, and would have stayed there until they were through.
2. A sharp turn was made
The inexperienced crew members panicked when their radar showed that they might be on a collision course with another ship, and as result ordered the ship to turn at a sharp angle (more than 5 degrees, which would be the maximum for this ship, especially in such troubled waters).
3. Problems steering
Because the situation required immediate response (a possible collision with another ship) and the crew were inexperienced, the helmsman panicked when the steering equipment didn't function smoothly, and ended up making an even sharper turn. The reason the steering equipment didn't function well was likely because of the weight issues due to the illegal modifications.
4. The weight distribution on the ship was off because of the illegal modifications
This meant that the ship didn't rest as securely in the water, so it wasn't predisposed to recover from such a sharp swing.
5. It carried too much cargo
it carried three times more cargo than it was allowed to carry. This meant that when the ship started tipping, the extra weight of the cargo made everything happen all the quicker and made it nearly impossible to recover from.
6. The ballast was only a forth of what it was supposed to be
Again this meant that she ship didn't rest properly in the water and was at high risk of capsizing at any relatively big turn. Especially with such a huge increase in cargo, having the proper ballast is crucial.
7. The engines were turned off
After the ship began to tip, the Chief Engineer turned off the engines, which meant that an attempt at turning the ship back was impossible.
How did so many people die?
The ship was equipped with 46 lifeboats which could each carry 45 people. It was plenty to rescue the 467 people onboard. So why did so many die?
During the first 15 minutes after the ship began to tilt, a time during which immediate action should have been taken, not a lot of action was actually taken, and none of the action taken was right, according to standard safety measures.
The Captain reported to the bridge, as did the other ship mates and helmsmen. The Chief engineer turned off the motors and ordered an evacuation of the engine rooms. But with the engines off, the ship could no longer shift direction and attempt to recover itself, despite the tilt.
Soon after the ship began to tilt, the communications officer instructed passengers to stay put.
"It's dangerous if you move, so just stay where you are."
He had not consulted the safety manual and most passengers did as they were asked. The order was repeated by crew members and the captain too, even as the crew were abandoning ship!
It is incredibly alarming that the first emergency came, not from the crew, but from a high school student, Choi Dukha, who was clever enough to call the emergency number within the first few minutes and report that the Sewol ferry was capsizing!
Thanks to this student's quick thinking, rescue was sent within 8 minutes of the incident, but the student himself did not survive.
Three entire minutes after Dukha had made the call, the crew made their first distress call (and to the wrong costal guard), but thanks to Choi Dukha, a patrol boat was already on the way.
The next 35 minutes onboard, a time that should have been focused on safe and orderly evacuation and rescue, the captain was instead in contact with the company who owned the Sewol Ferry, to report on the situation to them.
Meanwhile the ship was sinking
During this time the crew were also in contact with the local VTS (Vessel Traffic Service) who provided guidance:
1. The VTS told the crew to instruct everyone onboard to wear warm clothes and life jackets and instructed them to deploy the emergency floats. The crew responded that their broadcasting equipment was out of order. The VTS then ordered them to pass the message on in person.
2. The VTS urged the captain to make a decision on whether to evacuate or not. At this point they informed the captain that rescue boats were ten minutes out and a helicopter was one minute out. The captain responded only by saying that there were too many passengers for a helicopter!
3. Despite VTS recommendations, the captain told passengers to stay in their rooms.
4. Finally, the captain made the decision to evacuate, but with the broadcasting system down, the message could not be delivered around the ship and the crew didn't go to deliver it in person, after telling everyone to stay put.
Finally, the Captain and crew and the few passengers who had heard the message, and made it to the deck, abandoned ship.
This is a huge deal! You've probably heard the saying "a captain goes down with his ship"! It's a legal requirement for the captain to be the last person to leave ship, because he is responsible for EVERYONE onboard, but in the Sewol Ferry Incident, the captain was the first person to be rescued!
Captain, in underwear, getting rescued.
Who was blamed?
Naturally the captain was blamed for telling people to stay put and for abandoning ship first. He went on trial for man-slaughter with maximum penalty of death, and first got a 36 year prison sentence, which was later changed to a life sentence.
As I said above: legally it's the captain's responsibility that his passengers get safely from port to port and in this instance the captain did not fill his responsibilities properly at any moment during this incident.
The rest of the crew were sentenced to anywhere between 18 months to 12 years of prison. Only three crew members fulfilled their true duties and stayed onboard to help passengers escape. All three of them went down with the ship.
Since a lot of blame also rested with the company that owned the Sewol Ferry and had committed fraud, an arrest warrant was issued for the company owner, Yoo Byungeun and wanted posters distributed everywhere in the country.
The country was turned upside down in a manhunt to search for him, but he had vanished - until the 22nd of July. On that day, police found a dead man out on a field and decreed that it was Yoo Byungeun.
Lastly, a lot of citizens blamed the Korean government for their failure to act and prevent the incident, for their failure to save lives, and their attempts to cover it up.
How the government was involved
(or not involved)
More than half the survivors were rescued by civilians onboard fishing vessels and commercial ships 40 min AFTER the Korean Costal Guard arrived on scene!
The response and actions of government bodies was put into serious question. To name a few questionable actions (and lack of actions):
1. The VTS, who were in contact with the crew, did not keep the Coastal Guard informed, which meant that the rescue sent wasn't nearly enough, nor what was needed (there were no rescue divers onboard). The Coastal Guard operated under the assumption that the ship was being evacuated. This means that crucial information was not being communicated through these official channels.
2. The government ordered the state funded tv channel KBS to not criticise the Coast Guard and the rescue operations.
3. The government silenced citizens. By monitoring Internet and mobile chats, the government indicted hundreds of people for "spreading false rumours" about the incident and rescue operations.
4. School boards instructed schools to stay silent about the incident.
5. The government tried to deflect blame away from itself. The president herself pointed fingers at the captain and crew, barely even addressing the government's own involvement and failure to act. The same happened during investigations. The government's role in allowing an illegally modified ship to operate was brought into question. Blame was deflected by stating that the permission had been given because of falsified documents.
The critique upon the government meant that the prime minister resigned his position. He took full responsibility on behalf of the government and said in his resignation address that he believe that the disaster could have been prevented if the government had responded properly.
Largely, this continued lack of action from the government's side made citizens feel like they were being told to stay put, exactly like the captain had told the dying passengers.
The incident highlighted a fundamental and crucial problem in South Korean business ways. Although safety laws and protocols are in place, they are rarely ever followed and enforced. Because the government and individual businesses favour financial profit over safety.
After the Korean War, it was essential to put South Korea on an economical stable path, and corners were cut in order to achieve this. What was so shocking to the citizens was the realisations that those corners are still being cut in today's age and that nothing is being done to change that corruption and divert the attention back to safety.
The government's unwillingness to acknowledge their faults means that changes cannot be put in place in order to ensure that this sort of incident is never repeated and that is why people were so angry, and still are.
Matters did not improve when, a few weeks after the incident, president Park Geun Hye was photographed with an elderly woman in front of the official joint memorial alter.
This photo made it look like the president was consoling a member of one of the victims' family members, when in fact it was revealed that the elderly woman was just a local visitor.
This raised further controversy when it was revealed that the president visited the memorial alter but didn't meet any of the grieving relatives of the victims, and only held a photo session with this one woman, for appearances' sake.
After visiting the memorial alter, the president went back to her cabin and relayed her sympathies via the media, but she failed to put forth a plan to deal with the problem and prevent such tragedies from happening in the future.
Rage among the families rose especially when a news anchor at KBS (who are state funded and strongly influenced by the government) stated that the number of casualties in the ferry incident was far lower than the number of people killed in traffic accidents.
Families of the victims protested in front of the blue house (the presidential residence in South Korea) until the president of KBS came out to apologise and say that the one responsible would resign.
The families continued to raise questions for the government, demanding answers.
They want to know why there were initial delays in the rescue, and why it took more than three days for bodies to start being pulled out. They believe that some of the passengers might have survived hours and even days inside the ship, in air pockets, and only died because rescue wasn't sent in early enough.
It took years for the Sewol Ferry to finally be pulled out of the waters, and when it finally was, in March 2017 (a few months after the first edition of this post), further controversy was stirred when media falsely reported that bodily remains were found inside. The remains were found to be animal remains.
The government was also accused of having assisted and having financial interests in the company that owned the ferry and even to have helped them embezzle money.
There was even talk of the NIS (Korean national intelligence service) being involved with the company and the Sewol Ferry.
It's safe to say that this stirred up a lot of deep rooted problems within the Korean business sphere and within the government, and I hope this summary has helped to give you a better overview of why.
How BTS relates
At the end of January BTS and BigHit were revealed to have donated a total of 100 million Korean won to the families of the victims.
The BTS members each donated 10 million won and BigHit added 30 million won to the donation.
Furthermore, after I saw the track list for the new comeback I was convinced that 'Spring Day' was about the Sewol Ferry Incident because it happened in early spring, and BTS have a track record of having a twist to their titles ('first love' anyone?). After seeing the trailer, I'm even more convinced that it's about the incident, and was far from alone in being reminded of the disaster.
When the concept photo was first revealed the colour was yellow, and vaguely resembled the yellow ribbons that are a symbol of the Sewol Ferry Incident.
The Sewol Ferry Incident has been used and treated in K-pop before. Notable among K-pop acts who have released songs that have been connected to the Sewol Ferry Incident are the following:
The Ark with their debut song 'The Light'.
Red Velvet with 'One of These Nights'.
So what makes BTS's version any different? Let's have a closer look at recent events...
Why it's a big deal
BTS and BigHit made their donation and decided to treat this highly political subject AFTER it was revealed to the general public that the government had formed a blacklist of all entertainers and artists who have showed support for the victims of the Sewol tragedy, have donated money to them, or have otherwise put a focus on the incident.
People on the blacklist were, and are being, pressured into silence and being censored.
The government's handling of the incident removed artists' and civilians' right to free speech, and instead of abolishing the kind of corruption that made the incident possible in the first place, the government has instead gotten themselves into further corruption cases.
The fact that BTS are standing up for the victims of the Sewol Ferry Incident and up against the government, especially after knowledge of a blacklist has become known, is what makes them special. They aren't afraid to stand up to injustice and speak their minds.
It's the true hip hop mind. BTS are here to stand against injustice and demand change for the better.