SEOUL (AFP) - Stunned by a ferry disaster involving hundreds of missing schoolchildren, South Korea has gone into shocked limbo with political campaigns suspended, TV shows and concerts cancelled and vigils held to register grief at the unfolding tragedy.
The 6,825-tonne ferry carrying 475 people, mostly high school students on a school trip, sank off the country's southwest on Wednesday.
Nearly 30 bodies have been recovered and more than 260 people are still missing with search efforts making little progress.
As images of victims and distraught families fuelled the nationwide mood of despair, major TV stations stopped airing dozens of prime-time soap operas and popular entertainment shows - especially any involving music and dance.
They were replaced with special news coverage of the accident or documentaries.
"This is no time for laughter or joy. We plan to mourn the victims in as sombre a mood as possible," Mr Han Kyung Chun, a producer at KBS TV station, told the Daily Sports newspaper.
The country's two main parties imposed a temporary ban on political campaigning related to critical local elections in June.
Companies cancelled social business events, while provincial governments indefinitely suspended planned festivals, concerts and firework shows.
Dozens of K-pop stars and actors postponed the scheduled release of new albums or cancelled concerts and promotional events.
SM Entertainment - the country's top music agency - suspended the planned release next week of the new album by its top boyband, EXO, indefinitely.
"The decision was made to mourn the victims and to pray for the missing to return safely," the company said in a statement.
The country's three beer brewers - Lotte, Oriental Brewery and Hite Jinro - pulled their party-oriented TV commercials.
Professional baseball and soccer teams kept their cheerleaders off the pitch, and toned down the amplified music used to pump up the crowds.
South Korea's largest Buddhist order launched on Thursday a nationwide prayer meeting at its 2,500 temples for the safe return of the missing.
"We express our deepest regret and grief over the tragic incident," the Jogye Order that claims 10 million followers among South Korea's 50 million population said in a statement.
Of the 475 people on board the ferry when it capsized, 352 were high school students from Ansan city, which lies just south of Seoul and had been in a state of collective mourning since the disaster struck.
Hundreds of students and parents held a tearful vigil in the school Thursday night, holding out paper messages like "Don't lose hope" and "I miss your smile" - illuminated by the smartphones they held up to the sky.
Other candle-lit vigils by civic groups are planned in several cities including the capital Seoul.
The ferry tragedy has rocked the foundations of Asia's fourth-largest economy, where modernisation was thought to have consigned such large-scale disasters to history.
With the exception of a subway station fire in 2003 that claimed 192 lives, there have been no major disasters for nearly two decades.
A Seoul department store collapsed in 1995, killing more than 500 people, while nearly 300 people died when a ferry capsized off the west coast in 1993.
Seoul's online community was flooded with hundreds of thousands of messages of anger and despair, with many voicing frustration with the speed and effectiveness of the rescue effort.
"What's the point of having the world's fastest Internet, coolest smartphones and the best shipbuilding industry when you can't pull that ship out of water and save our kids?" one user wrote on the popular Internet portal Naver.com.
"I thought our country was more developed than countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh, but maybe I was wrong," posted another.