Yellow ribbon is the symbol of the Sewol incident, a ferry disaster that killed 304 passengers three years ago today. All over South Korea, tiny yellow ribbons dangle from people’s backpacks, wallets, bicycles, and on the windowsills of small cafés. Politicians — mostly from the liberal factions — don the yellow ribbons to show their solidarity.
But the yellow ribbon is as much a symbol of division as unity. It’s a testament to how politicized the Sewol incident has become in South Korea; how the ferry disaster — and the yellow ribbon by default — has become a polarizing symbol that’s dividing the political left and the right.
Last Wednesday, I paid a visit to one yellow ribbon factory. The little workshop in Seochon, Seoul, was located on the third floor of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) building, which was covered in hundreds of fluttering yellow ties. By the way, PSPD is one of South Korea’s most prominent leftist civic organizations, founded in 1994 by Park Won-sun, the current mayor of Seoul.
The workshop started at 7 p.m. With seven other volunteers and some kimbab provided by the organizers, I participated in the all-voluntary process of making the yellow “Sewol” ribbons. We started cutting yellow foam boards into 7 mm-wide strips, twisted and glued the strips into ribbon-shapes, and finished off the job by putting a little metal chain through the ribbon hole. All the while, everyone talked, sharing memories of the yellow ribbons that to many have become a symbol of South Korea’s tragic history.
“Can I bring some of these ribbons to my [Catholic] church on my way home today? My mom would love to share the ribbons with the people there on the weekend,” said Hong Soo-Jung, a volunteer who said it’s her fifth time visiting here.
The workshop in the PSPD building started a year ago, and is one of the biggest producers of the yellow ribbons. (The other one is the “Sewol Square” on Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul.) Taking place every Wednesday and open to all members of the public, the workshops typically produce hundreds of them per session, which are then distributed mostly through other civic organizations, who pick up boxes of these ribbons at the PSPD building. It’s not a commercial venture; the ribbons are available for free.
“I got into a lot of fights where people tried to take the ribbon off me,” Hong said. “There were also a lot of people who wouldn’t take the ribbons when I offered.”
Sometimes wearing this symbol of the Sewol is enough to incite violence: When former president Park Geun-hye was ousted from office last month, for example, many of her conservative supporters turned rowdy and violent. Citizens donning yellow ribbons were immediately labelled and shunned as “the other side,” or leftists opposing the Park administration.
This association is valid to an extent. In the past three years, the families of the Sewol victims and survivors have sided with leftist camps to condemn the conservative administration’s lackluster response to the ferry disaster. (The ferry was only recently salvaged, after three years of stalling) In turn, conservative politicians and media outlets have picked up on the families’ alliance with liberals, hoping to discredit the Sewol cause with questionable claims about the families’ monetary intentions and even extreme leftist, or communist, motivations.
“You can’t separate the ribbon from the politics,” said Kang Hye-bin, a part-time worker at PSPD. “The Sewol families need politics.”
I’m not sure I entirely agree with Kang here. Yes, there are some family members who want to continue working together with leftist politicians to “find the truth,” or investigate the precise causes behind why the ship sank, what role government corruption played in allowing an overweight vessel to operate, and why the government’s rescue effort was so incompetent. And their cause is worthy. But the political battle is not all there is to the Sewol disaster. In some ways, reducing the Sewol to politics cheapens the memories of the victims and the ensuing grief.
The yellow ribbon itself goes beyond the Sewol: It has a longer history in South Korea. Generally a symbol of ‘safe return,’ these ribbons were used in 2007, for example, to pray for the safe return of South Koreans abducted in Afghanistan. Internationally, the symbol is used to express sorrow and solidarity, especially to commemorate those that are away from home.
Today marks the third-year anniversary of the sinking of the Sewol. The sunken vessel was only recently raised from its watery grave, but the grief that swept the country lingers on. And so does the production — and politics — of the yellow ribbons.
Cover Image: Yellow ribbons hanging from the building of PSPD. (Seohoi Stephanie Park/Korea Exposé)