Sewol tragedy survivors sit college entry test

Family members of the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol outside the Supreme Court in Seoul on Nov 12, 2015, after the top court upheld the life sentence for the ferry's captain.
Family members of the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol outside the Supreme Court in Seoul on Nov 12, 2015, after the top court upheld the life sentence for the ferry's captain.PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL • Survivors of one of South Korea's worst maritime disasters were among hundreds of thousands of high school students across the country who sat the high-pressure annual college entrance exam yesterday.

The several dozen students were among 325 from Danwon High School in Ansan, south of Seoul, on an organised trip to the southern resort island of Jeju in April last year when the passenger ferry they were travelling in sank.

Only 75 of the students survived.

The Sewol ferry disaster stunned the entire nation and a shrine to the dead erected near the Danwon school became an unofficial memorial to the tragedy. Most of the surviving students were in the same grade and took part in yesterday's exam - seen off at the test centres by their anxious parents.

"After what happened she became quite withdrawn and shunned people as well as her studies," Mr Jang Dong Won, 46, said of his daughter. "But she somehow pulled herself out of it, and ended up hitting the books hard, staying late at school to study with her classmates."

The survivors were offered a dispensation to apply to colleges without taking the exam, but most declined, despite the difficulties they had getting back into the gruelling study routine the test demands.

"They didn't want any special favours," said Mr Park Yoon Soo, 44, whose daughter was so haunted by feelings of guilt after so many of her classmates died that she attempted suicide at home last year. "She was stopped by my son, and I am still worried about her health. But in the end she will apply for whatever college her test results realistically allow her to apply for," Mr Park said.

More than 630,000 students turned out for the exam yesterday and, as happens every year, the entire country went into hush-mode for the duration. All aircraft takeoffs and landings at South Korean airports were suspended for 35 minutes to coincide with the main language listening test. The Transport Ministry said 69 scheduled flights had to be readjusted because of the suspension with four domestic flights cancelled for the day. Arriving flights that were in the air had to maintain an altitude exceeding 3km until given permission to land.

Public offices, major businesses and the stock markets opened an hour later than usual to help keep the roads relatively clear and ensure that the students arrived on time for the exam which began at 8.40am .

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2015, with the headline 'Sewol tragedy survivors sit college entry test'. Print Edition | Subscribe