Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Mass Communication and Media Arts
On April 16, 2014, South Korea witnessed one of the worst tragedies in contemporary Korean history. A cruise boat named Sewol carrying 456 passengers—most of them teenage high school students on a field trip—sank into the sea, taking the lives of 304 persons. The nation saw aghast, on multiple media platforms, the abysmal failure of the authorities to rescue them. I analyze the movement that developed in its aftermath: how citizens started to claim their adulthood, united beyond exclusionary familism in sorrow over the failure to protect children who belonged to them all. I explain how they turned their personal grief into political solidarity and started to overcome the rugged individualism and self-reliance that had come to define citizenship in neoliberal Korea. Against the state’s injunction to forget and move on, citizens created memorials and refused to accept the dominant narrative that the authorities had done their best to rescue the children and meticulously started to examine televisual and other records of that day. By their very nature, as public and personal records, these artifacts of memory-keeping are across media and art forms. I do close readings of fiction and documentary films, explore the 24/7 nature of live broadcasts, and analyze artistic responses such as memorial sites, literature, paintings, and sculptures to find in all of them, a deeply felt crisis triggered by the death of children. I find in these collective efforts what I describe as “suspended mourning,” a resolve to suspend the emotional state of grief in search of answers to the reasons not just for the incident but the deep-seated propensity toward obedience ingrained in South Korean upbringing itself. I argue that the catastrophe finally severed the emotional bonds many had with President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the military dictator Park Jung-hee, who is widely recognized as the father of Korean modernization. The “orphan of the nation,” as Park Geun-hye was referred to, lost the public leniency she had enjoyed until then. It eventually led to the Candlelight Revolution three years later, leading to her impeachment.
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