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[Ferry Disaster] City strives to move on after Sewol

Three candidates vie neck-and-neck for Ansan mayor’s office

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Published : 2014-05-29 21:07
Updated : 2014-05-29 21:34

This is the seventh installment in series of articles on the upcoming local elections, exploring key issues and candidates in major cities. ― Ed.


Ansan, paralyzed by the Sewol’s sinking last month, is slowly recovering.

City buses full of half-asleep office-goers rushed along their routes during morning traffic hours on Wednesday. Cars honked. Secondary school students in uniforms walking to school joked and laughed amongst themselves. College students at Hanyang University’s Ansan campus prepared for job interviews.

But the Sewol accident’s ripples in the industrial city haven’t disappeared altogether.

“I can still feel it,” said Lee Rogers, a 47-year-old Australian who teaches English at Hanyang University in Ansan. “It certainly has been quieter.”
Posters of Ansan’s mayoral candidates in the June 4 elections are shown next to a city bus carrying “rest in peace” banner in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, Sunday. The Sewol’s sinking killed more than 240 students from the city’s Danwon High School. (Yonhap)

About 70 survivors of the disaster visit the Korea University Medical Center in Ansan for post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Economic activities remain in limbo, with sales in some local stores plummeting by 50 percent according to owners and financial authorities in Seoul. Local cultural festivities have been canceled. Thousands of yellow ribbons, symbolizing hope that those missing from the Sewol tragedy will return home safe, still flap on the streets.

And with the June local elections only a week away, Ansan mayor candidates said they would rescue the city.

The candidates said they would improve safety, set up mental health care centers, raise memorials for the Sewol victims, and bring back economic life to the town. The Sewol has dominated the campaign.

The latest voter surveys showed the three main candidates for the Ansan mayor’s office were neck-and-neck. The ruling Saenuri Party’s Cho Bin-ju and independent candidate Kim Chul-min scored 30.6 and 27.1 percent ratings, respectively, while the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy’s Je Jong-geel received a 26.1 percent approval rating among surveyed voters. Real meter, an opinion surveyor, and a local daily conducted the polls on May 19 among 502 Ansan citizens.

Kim is the current Ansan mayor and a former NPAD colleague of Je. The NPAD nominated Je to the party’s Ansan mayor candidacy this year. Kim thereafter pulled out from the NPAD to run as an independent, effectively dividing the opposition’s votes. Kim likened his former party’s nomination of Je to “kicking the son out from his father’s funeral” because 16 remain missing from the Sewol accident, some of whom are students and teachers from Danwon High School in Ansan.

“This could mean the conservative Saenuri Party could take the city,” said local historian Lee Hyoun-woo of the Ansan Cultural Center. “Ansan is traditionally a more liberal-oriented town because of the local trade unions and the presence of many migrants from the Jeolla provinces.”

The Sewol hung heavily on the minds of some voters, but to others, the coming Ansan mayor election wasn’t about the sunken ferry.

“Of course the Sewol will affect my vote,” said a pharmacist in downtown Ansan, while Won Hyuk-bin, a 57-year-old restaurant owner in southeastern Ansan, said politics and the Sewol were “separate” issues.

“I don’t know if I’m going to vote,” said Ahn Yoon-gyung, a retail shop owner. “All those politicians are all the same. I don’t think my cynicism for politics would have been any different with or without the Sewol.”

Campaign staff refrained from playing music and singing catchphrases over loudspeakers as in past elections.

“But it’s time to move on,” said Han Sang-don, a cab driver in Ansan. “I don’t see the point of canceling these festivities and ceremonies.

“The living must go on living, right?”

Moving on will never be easy for some citizens, however, because the Sewol calamity is not over.

Buddhist monks finally completed their 10,000 bow ceremony last Saturday in tribute to those killed in the maritime catastrophe on April 16. Catholic officials will continue mass downtown. Next Tuesday, monks will hold a 49-bow ceremony to commemorate five Danwon High School students and to mark the 49th day since their passing.

And to the families of those killed, their struggle continues. Despite criticism that the families are over-politicizing the issue by marching on Cheong Wa Dae earlier this month and their overnight sit-in at parliament, families held another tearful press conference on Wednesday.

“It’s not about left or right,” said one mother at the National Assembly. “It’s about finding those still missing and conducting a thorough parliamentary review so that nothing like this happens again.”

“It will never be over until then.”

By Jeong Hunny (hj257@heraldcorp.com)

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