Two Years Later Sewol Ferry Accident Still Resonates in K-Pop Memory
April 16 marks the second anniversary of the Sewol Ferry catastrophe that resulted in the death of 304 people and sparked introspection of South Korea’s socio-political society. While two years have passed since the sinking, the pain is still raw and many South Koreans continue to demand recognition for what is perceived as an avoidable accident that took the lives of hundreds, many of whom were students at Danwan High School. The effect of any tragedy on art is profound but it’s particularly striking that fans are looking towards K-pop, a musical style that is often perceived as artistically shallow, to find some connection to the youth who passed away during the Sewol ferry’s sinking.
Just as media often reflects current events, K-pop and the general Korean entertainment industry are also still recoiling from the haunting event. While K-pop took a break once to remember those lost, now many Korean songs are being interpreted as memorials dedicated to the Sewol Ferry victims. As K-pop continues to develop into a more mature brand, audiences seek to find a deeper meaning in the musical releases of Korean pop culture. Red Velvet, INFINITE’s Kim Sungkyu, and Block B’s Zico are just a few of the K-pop acts who have been connected to the sinking.
Back in 2014, the entire South Korean entertainment world came to a halt following the tragedy. South Korea’s confucian, communal heritage came to light internationally for the first time in several years during the situation as the entire country came together to commemorate the accident. For more than a month, the Korean pop culture world creeped along trying not to break the tense situation nationwide with what would be deemed inappropriate during a time of mourning. The industry came to a stand still, with few television stations running their normal programming and other forms of entertainment putting off plans; between Block B’s release of “Jackpot” on April 14 and EXO reawakening K-pop on May 7 with “Overdose,” there was no mainstream K-pop music put out because the industry had come to a halt out of respect to the victims and their mourners.
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After life returned to relative normality in South Korea and as the country demanded answers to difficult questions, Korean pop culture still retained its connection to the tragedy. As one of the most defining events in the past few years of South Korean history and an incident that particularly struck young adults, the Sewol accident appears to be rearing its head in a variety of places. While some instances of commemoration were intentional, other instances appear to be coincidences that were discovered by South Koreans still struggling with the horror of what happened on April 14, 2014 as they look for meaning in the art.
Red Velvet “One Of These Nights”
With recurrent water motifs, Red Velvet’s latest concept demands a further look. The song, ostensibly about lovers separation and longing, features a music video that shows the five members of Red Velvet in a variety of scenes that fans thought were meant to symbolize the Sewol Ferry’s sinking and the ones they left behind. Fans drew together a variety of ideas relating the music video concept to Sewol, beginning with the concept pictures which featured paper boats, similar to ones used to commemorate the deceased.
Throughout the music video, the members are seen in a variety of scenes surrounded by water; Joy is perceived as a survivor as she alone climbs away, up a ladder. Wendy, soaking wet, climbs under a table as a representation of the children stuck on the boat who crawled. There are also scenes filmed in a hallway that appears similar to that of those on boats, and a sign with the words “AIS on 15-16.” The AIS, or the Automatic Identification System that helps track ships, aboard the Sewol ferry is suspected of not having functioned properly on April 15 and 16.
To further the idea, Joy is the sole member who wears yellow, the color of the ribbons that memorialize the Sewol Ferry victims, while the other members wear white hooded outfits. In traditional Korean culture, white represents death. Joy sings the haunting line, “It’s okay if I see you in my dreams, so let’s meet again” as the rest of the members disappear into darkness.
Neither Red Velvet nor SM Entertainment, the group’s company, commented on the perceived connections, but the abundance of imagery (especially the AIS sign) makes it very plausible that “One of These Nights” was purposely a memorial to Sewol’s victims.
The plot of the music video for “Kontrol” features Sungkyu searching for his younger sister and remembering how they lived happily together while creating a home in an alleyway. Yellow ribbons and life jackets also appear in the short video, leading to fan speculation that that video was somehow related to those who who perished aboard the Sewol ferry.
Like “One of These Nights,” there is an ample amount of water imagery, but “Kontrol” also features the passing of first the girl and then Sungkyu followed by the two of them finding one another in heaven while she is soaking wet, alluding to drowning. Throughout the music video, Sungkyu remembers the pair’s happier times together while wandering alone before presumably walking in front of a car. At the end, Sungkyu gives his sister a small plastic house in a toy to symbolize the home that they, and the students aboard the ferry, once had no longer return to.
Some interpreted the song’s title as condemnation towards the crewmembers and adults who were in charge who took control improperly of the sinking, leading to unnecessary loss of life.
Although Red Velvet have remained quiet about the alleged connection, Sungkyu publicly revealed that the deeper meaning had not been intended but that there are different ways to interpret any sort of art.
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The Ark “The Light
Like the aforementioned songs, the debut song of (reportedly disbanded) The Ark was released only a few days before the first anniversary of the Sewol disaster. The heart wrenching music video features the loving relationship of a mother and a daughter, and the tragic moment when the mother discovers through a news report that her daughter died in an accident. Although the music video featured a bus accident as the cause of death, the timing of the video’s release and the depiction of a parent sending her daughter on a school trip draws on the emotions connected with Sewol.
Zico “Tough Cookie” & “Well Done” feat. Ja Mezz
Block B, the only K-pop group to release a song the day of the tragic event, has a particular connection to the sinking and Zico took the event and immortalized it with these songs. While the previous songs mentioned in this piece all require speculation to make a connection between Sewol and the music or music videos, Zico made it extremely clear that his songs “Well Done” and “Tough Cookie” were dedicated to Sewol’s victims. Both songs have run times of four minutes and 16 seconds, symbolizing April 16. Prior to the release of both, Zico tweeted about the time codes so that fans were aware of his song’s created as memorials.
Zico also commemorated a Block B fan lost at Sewol by attending her funeral and dedicating a rap to her at a concert she had planned to attend prior to her passing.