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 southwest of Seoul will 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 director Behck 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."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!