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'We Will Remember; We Will Not Stay Put': Ethics and Politics after the Sewol Ferry Disaster in South Korea

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Park, Yeong Seo 


The sinking of the Korean ferry, MV Sewol, on April 16th, 2014, claimed 304 lives, 250 of whom were high school students on a fieldtrip to Jeju Island. The Disaster, broadcasted real-time, incited a widespread movement founded on condolence for the victims, and a collective determination that ‘things have to change’. Bringing together bereaved families, progressive activists, and ‘ordinary’ citizens previously far from ‘political’, Sewol activism has witnessed mobilization of a scale unprecedented for a post-disaster activism in Korea. Based on 15 months of fieldwork, this dissertation investigates the ethics and politics of the social movement that emerged in the aftermath of Sewol. Chapter 1 begins with a contextualization of Sewol activism within a broader lineage of Korean social movements, and an outline of its key tactics and repertoires. Focusing on the movement’s striving for diffusion, I probe how the Sewol movement calls for a refined understanding of what it means to ‘act’ in the political arena. In Chapter 2, I turn to my interlocutors’ commitment to remembrance, through accounts of spaces and places intrinsically infused with the memory of the Disaster and its victims, and those endowed with meaning by the bereaved and activists. I highlight how remembrance establishes not only an intimate relation with the past, but also an orientation towards the future.
Chapters 3 and 4 scrutinize the activist and ethical commitments of the bereaved family members and the non-bereaved activists, respectively. Both chapters highlight how ethical commitments are developed and performed relationally, through examinations of affectively charged notions of duty, complicity, and solidarity. Chapter 5 situates my interlocutors’ activism within the broader field of Korean politics. I recount the complexities inhered in treading a balance between a victims’ movement and a political movement, and in challenging normative ideas about how victims ought to engage with the field of politics. The chapter calls for attention to how ethical projects are shaped by and contested within their social and political milieus.





Laidlaw, James


Activism, Anthropology of ethics, Sewol Ferry Disaster, Social movements, South Korea


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Cambridge Trust; King's College; University Fieldwork Fund