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South Korea

After Sewol, An Election In South Korea's Saddest City

A visit to Ansan, South Korea, where a month after 260 of its children died in the South Korean ferry sinking, the city must elect its mayor. Mourning and anger are the politics of the day.

The mourning is everywhere in Ansan
The mourning is everywhere in Ansan
Philippe Mesmer

ANSAN — The atmosphere is grim in Ansan, but it's time for people to go to the polls. On Wednesday, the 760,000 inhabitants of this modest town an hour by train southwestof Seoulwill be voting for their mayor and the executive of Gyeonggi, their region.

It’s a national vote, but in this city born in 1986 of the fusion of several fishing villages, the election takes place in a very particular context. Ansan is home to Danwon High School — the school that lost 260 students and teachers when the Sewol ferry sunk on April 16.

This is, in other words, the epicenter of a profound national shock unleashed across South Korea.

Located in the Gojan-dong neighborhood, the school is lit twenty four hours a day "so that the souls of the dead students don’t get cold in the dark," explains An Soon-uk, who is in charge of managing the aftermath, particularly the psychological effects, of the tragedy.

The ten classrooms where the deceased students once studied are covered with messages. Here is just one:"Today’s homework: Come back." There are bouquets of chrysanthemums on the tables, one for each dead child.

The tragedy threw the town into a continuous state of mourning. Yellow ribbons bearing personal messages flutter in the wind under an already hot, late spring sun. "Ju-hi, mommy is waiting for you, come back quickly," reads one message. A large tent has been set up not far from the municipal stadium to accommodate a memorial.

The shock is all the greater because the town is so modest. Ansan is divided into old and new zones. The school, built in the 1980s, is located in the old zone. The students came from housing blocks nearby — rows of identical, dilapidated red brick buildings in a green setting. "Twenty percent of the families couldn’t afford the 325,000 wons ($260) for the trip," An Soon-uk relates. "The school and the authorities helped them pay for it."

The city is also home to a University of Hanyang campus and the Seoul Institute of the Arts. For excursions there is the nearby island of Daebu known for its beautiful sunsets and its Valley Rock Festival, which has been cancelled as a gesture of mourning.

Life here revolves around the Banwol and Sihwaq industrial complexes that comprise 7,000 small and medium-sized companies and employ more than 120,000 people. "The main thrust of activity is subcontracting for the car and electronic industries,"says Lee Jung-min of the municipal administration.

Campaigning for happiness

The city is not far from the Yellow Sea and the transportation hubs in Incheon, making the location ideal for exports. But subcontracting can be another way of saying low salaries and insecure jobs. Ansan had attracted many immigrants, mostly from China and southeast Asia, something that is rare in South Korea.

"Fifty thousand foreigners are registered," Lee notes. "There are somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 clandestine workers."

Ryu Hyemin of Litmus, a local NGO, says immigrants were encouraged to come here because Koreans "didn’t want the available jobs which were considered dirty, dangerous, and demanding."

Still the NGO’s directorBehck Dragon says immigration is not one of the electoral issues. "It’s a working class town with a tradition of dissent and where conservatives have never won," he explains.

But the Sewol tragedy brought out a sense of defiance towards the authorities across Korea. "There is a lot of anger. Ties have been broken with the administration, the parties, the media," he adds. Many of the candidates have focused their campaign on security, which is new.

In Ansan the incumbent mayor Kim Chul-min, a former member of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, the main national opposition party, is focusing on the cost of attending university, promising to cut fees by half. He has refused to step aside for Je Jong-gil, the candidate imposed by the party, and the town could end up in conservative hands if the progressive vote is split.

The Saenuri, the party of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, would then win even though it seems to be getting a drubbing in its traditional bastions of Busan (southeast) and Daegu (center), largely because of its handling of the Sewol tragedy.

The Ansan candidate, Cho Bin-ju, is slightly ahead in the polls. He campaign slogan? "Security and the happiness of all families."

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