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Visiting empty desk of S. Korea ferry victim helps mom cope

Mother of S. Korea ferry victim visits son's desk at school to cope with grief, rage

Visiting empty desk of S. Korea ferry victim helps mom cope

ANSAN, South Korea (AP) -- Once or twice a week, a mother's ritual begins.

Shin Jumja applies pink lipstick and face powder, gets in her car and drives to the high school her oldest son attended before his death. Sometimes she brings a colorful plant.

She passes students running in the hallways and steps into his quiet, empty classroom. As the outside noises fade, she walks to the front right corner where a framed picture of her 17-year-old son, Jeong Hwi-bum, smiles back at her from his desk.

He and 249 other students from Danwon High School died a year ago in the sinking of the ferry Sewol. All told, more than 300 people were killed.

Shin gazes at the picture of her son in his dark gray school uniform. As she wipes several of the desks and chairs with tissues, her eyes moisten. Sunlight pours in from the windows onto the potted plants, many with yellow or orange flowers, which sit on nearly all the desks in memory of the children.

"I know this is all vain, doing this for a child who's no longer with me," she says. "But my son liked to see his mom wearing makeup. When I didn't put any on, he'd ask me if I was feeling all right."

Hwi-bum was a gentle, perceptive young man, she says, the first to recognize whenever she got a new haircut. He loved her cooking and liked drawing better than soccer.

Shin, 43, prays silently. She vows not to forget her son -- and to find out what went wrong on April 16, 2014, when the ferry her son and his friends were taking for a school trip sank off the southern coast. Nearly one year after the deadly sinking united South Korea with shock and remorse, the country is divided and the government has yet to launch a formal investigation amid wrangling about money and personnel.

The first time Shin visited her son's classroom was the day of his funeral. Holding his picture, she walked into the classroom and found his name on the desk.

"For the first time I learned that my son had a dream," she said, pointing to a piece of paper taped to the desk that said her son wanted to be an automotive designer. "My son liked drawing and he learned painting after school, but I didn't know he wanted to become a car designer."

The school has left open many of the classrooms used by the dead pupils, offering victims' relatives and friends a space to remember the dead. Parents like Shin take care of the classrooms, sweeping the floors and watering flowers.

When she is alone here, she writes letters to her son and looks at pictures of him on her phone. A nearby blackboard is covered with messages of grief and hope. She tries to imagine what her son felt when he was in the classroom.

"I come here and feel like he's still living here, like he's still playing here, still taking classes here, maybe even fighting with friends," she says through tears as she sits on her son's chair.

"When I'm here, my heart hurts but I also feel comforted. So I come here alone at least three or four times a month."


The family was too overwhelmed by emotion to sit together for Hwi-bum's 18th birthday on April 3.

His father first locked himself in the bedroom, then left home in tears without eating. His younger brother, 14, ran away to school.

His mother, left alone with a table full of her son's favorite foods, quietly sang a birthday song.

Shin weeps now as she remembers the electric shaver she bought as a present for a boy who died too young to have a beard.

After the tragedy, Shin's family moved out of the home where Hwi-bum was raised, partly to avoid the pain of constantly confronting memories of him. In their new apartment, Hwi-bum has his own bedroom. Shin still keeps clothes that he used to wear as a baby, his books and pictures, and letters of sympathy from people she's never met.

During her last phone call with her son, a few minutes before the ship made a sharp turn and started listing, he told her that he had just bought a drink after having breakfast.

When Shin finally received the bag that Hwi-bum carried onto the ship -- retrieved by divers -- she found an unopened can of Pocari Sweat, his favorite drink, inside. Since then, she always keeps at least two bottles of the sports drink in the fridge because she feels like "he'll just open the door and come home."

Except for her school visits and late-night grocery shopping, Shin doesn't go out much. She said she didn't even notice that the cherry trees were in bloom during a recent interview with The Associated Press.

She dreads dealing with her neighbors: "Even though people aren't staring at me, I feel like they're looking at me with pity."

She has devoted more time to her hobby, gardening, making sure that the plants in the living room, in Hwi-bum's bedroom and in his classroom are healthy.


Shin saw her son in a video shot during the sinking ship's last minutes. It had come from a cellphone retrieved from the ship, along with the bodies.

"An announcement tells people not to move. My son sits tight. But I know, as his mother, that he was terrified," she said.

Shin cannot forgive the captain and the crew members of the Sewol, who were among the first to escape the ship on a coastguard rescue boat. The captain is appealing 36 years' imprisonment. Other crewmembers are appealing after receiving five to 30 years in prison sentences.

"Even though they couldn't rescue everyone, they could have at least made an announcement to evacuate," she said.

She's also haunted by the night before the school trip, when Hwi-bum said he didn't want to go. Shin believed that it wasn't right to miss a school activity, even though her son was afraid of taking a ship.

Shin says South Korea has learned little from the tragedy, even after its president vowed to solve the regulatory and safety problems that contributed to the sinking. "There's nothing that has improved after Sewol," Shin said. The country is still "not a safe place."

"Even after such a huge tragedy, people who give orders from the top don't worry about this and are busy evading responsibility. That's why I think these accidents will continue," she said.

The country is no longer united over the legacy of the ferry disaster. Some people express fatigue and ask victims' relatives to move on.

"People say they cry when they're traveling in a foreign country and see South Korea's national flag. For me, I don't like my country anymore," Shin said.

"This country abandoned us," she said. "So I abandoned my country."

Still, she wants to improve safety for her younger son and her future grandchildren. Her husband joins other relatives of the victims in a square in central Seoul to pressure the government to hold those responsible for the disaster accountable.

"For those children," she said, "I believe we must find out the truth."


Lee can be reached at:

Updated : 2021-09-26 12:21 GMT+08:00