At Sea in South Korea

I remember March 26 vividly. I was watching the news as I do each night when the words “Cheonan Sunk” appeared on the screen.

The South Korean warship had been patrolling around Baengnyeong Island, near the maritime border with North Korea, when it went down, sinking deep into the Yellow Sea with 46 sailors trapped inside. Wanting to know if there were any survivors, if anyone could be rescued, I couldn’t bring myself to turn off the TV.

I wasn’t the only one transfixed. The owner of the neighborhood bookstore closed his shop. My friend canceled her vacation to India. We couldn’t stop thinking of those sailors, waiting at the bottom of the sea. But the tides and rough winds worked against the rescue operations. As the clock ticked, the weather worsened.

In the end, not one of the 46 was saved. And we lost a 47th: a man who became unconscious underwater while trying to rescue the others. How can we hope to understand the anger and despair that their families must have gone through? Watching, I felt my powerlessness acutely.

Twenty days after it sank, the ship was pulled to the surface, revealing its tattered stern. After it was drained of water, most of the sailors were returned too, as corpses. That night I went to a mostly empty restaurant, ordered dinner and watched the news. While the screen displayed the photographs of the dead, their hometowns and ages, I heard the sound of quiet sobbing. It was the cook. “How can God be so indifferent?” she asked.

For South Korea, “the Cheonan Incident” is far from over. There has been a spate of accusations about the cause of the ship’s sinking (an international inquiry found a North Korean torpedo responsible), then a flaring of hostilities between North and South. Within South Korea, politicians have theories; the ruling party blames the opposition; the opposition blames the ruling party.

As for me, I am haunted by the faces of the six who were never found. I imagine their bodies tossed in the current, in the stillness of that cold dark sea. Even at this moment, they are probably being knocked against rocks, fed on by fish, their bodies worn away by rough waves. Or maybe they’ve come to some kind of rest by an uninhabited island, caught in a tangle of water plants.

One of the sailors had a month to go before his discharge. One was about to be married. I am reduced to silence by how youthful they look in the photographs, how full of health and beautiful. They still have not returned.

Shin Kyung-Sook, author of the forthcoming novel Please Look After Mom. This article was translated by Jae Won Chung from the Korean.

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