Gwanghwamun Square, central Seoul. We were engulfed by a sea of yellow jackets and riot shields, some marching, others running. Most were strategically cemented in formations. It was a national holiday, ‘Liberation Day’, which marked the freedom from Japanese occupation. The massive presence of authority hardly echoed the day’s sentiment.
We were passing through when, in the blink of an eye, some friends and I latched onto a protest march. It was something about workers unions and injustice and down with the system. One lady was nude with full body paint. Another wore kinky leather, handcuffs dangling and strutting as if she’d sprinkled cocaine on her cornflakes. She shouted something simultaneously angry and uplifting toward a group camped under an open air tent, who promptly responded with cheers and pumped fists.
Coming to an abrupt halt, we found ourselves signing a petition to launch an independent investigation into the tangled web of Sewol-gate. A parent of one of the victims was there, Kim Young-oh, who’d been fasting for 33 days on nothing but salt and water. He was willing to die for justice.
The messy handling of Sewol spawned wide-spread public anger amid claims of government incompetence, not only merely their response, but also the how the causes were evaluated. Shame-induced suicides, cult leaders and claims of corruption all rose out of the murky depths of an ocean of misinformation.
The lack of enforced safety regulations during Korea’s economic rise came to the fore with Sewol, a ship that was overloaded with cargo on a regular basis. That incident preceded a summer of health and safety disasters in the capital which included fires, collapsing buildings, sinkholes and subway collisions. The most recent incident involved 16 people falling to their deaths through a poorly-built vent grate at a concert. Even a giant rubber duck, brought to Seoul to cheer people up, has been placed in a dangerous location.
South Korea may now be included in the list of OECD countries, but in light of 2014’s string of man-made disasters, ‘developed’ is very much a relative term for a country that’s taken so many shortcuts on it’s route to riches.
You might ask why it was a good idea for someone to stand on a grate in the first place, let alone as many that caused it’s collapse. Did people mindlessly adhere to one another’s illogical behavior? Some critics pondered why young victims of the Sewol obeyed orders to stay below deck so rigidly, wondering if it was linked to a culture that obeys authority figures more readily than other countries.
Sometimes when I see crowds hypnotized by that little red man in the traffic light box, glued to their standing positions regardless of visible traffic, I’m fine to go along with the hive mind theory. Perhaps it’s my small town mentality. Since Sewol though, i’m amazed at how many people have been taking a stand against alleged incompetence toward the ruling elite.
It’s hard to pinpoint the Korean mindset. If there’s a herd mentality here, it’s more evident in social etiquette than in governmental obedience. From citizens switching social networking apps for fear of being spied on, to journalists and artists being arrested, the powers that be are becoming increasingly suspicious about an increasingly cynical population.
We left the protest tent, still on the same small strip leading from Gyeongbok Palace to nearby Gwanghwamun Station, and emerged onto the fountain area under the guardian gaze of legendary Admiral Yi Sun-sin. This is a tribute statue that represents more than a man, but a state of defiance.
There were children playing about in the puddles of fountain water. They ran and rolled about completely unperturbed at the fact that they were not only in the midst of interweaving protests, heavy police presence and pre-pope religious ceremonies, but they were also sitting in the watery reflection of lines of riot shields.
The whole scene looked like a Banksy piece come to life. As I began to compose a frame with the police and puddles with my phone, a free-spirited young girl approached the man-made barrier, walking directly under the Admiral.
Nonchalantly, she turned her direction alongside the officers, following watery reflections as if the shields were mere stepping stones.
In a flash she jumped down to the ground , looked up at the darkness in front of her and splashed away in an act of carefree irreverence.
Could it have been an echo of Admiral Yi-Sun-sin’s defiant nature? Perhaps a metaphoric echo of the Sewol disaster? Of course, it was nothing more than a child who, along with the nearby protesters, showed the true mark of liberation – the ungoverned expression of the human spirit.
See more of The Secret Map at the Facebook page.
A version of this article was originally published in Photographers in Korea
Learn more about Kim Young-oh here