History News

What Those Yellow Ribbons Mean: The Sewol Ferry Tragedy

From Seoul to Busan, Korea in April is yellow. You may have noticed it in the pins worn by your favorite idols, in the paper boats lining window sills, or in the ribbons, tied to anything and everything, fluttering in the wind. So, what exactly is this all about?

This week marks the 4th Anniversary of the sinking of the MV Sewol (or Sewol-ho), a passenger vessel carrying 476 people-the majority being secondary school students- that sank off the coast of Donggeochado on the morning of April 16th, 2014. Of those 476 passengers, 299 died onboard, with two rescue divers and five emergency workers quickly following. The students, juniors ranging from 16-17 from Danwon high in Anson, just outside of Seoul, were on a field trip from Incheon to the resort island of Jeju. Sadly, they would never arrive.

© Jeon Heon-kyun, 10.04,2018, The Guardian

After hearing about the tragedy on the news and wanting desperately to do something to help the victims and their families, a group of local university students began The Yellow Ribbon Campaign. The students, borrowing from the U.S. tradition of using a yellow ribbon as a symbol for wishing loved ones a safe return from war, began making yellow ribbons, both physical and virtual. Soon, thousands of strips of yellow cloth with names of those lost and messages of hope began cropping up on railings, fences, and café windows all over the country. The movement gained traction on social media, with celebrities like K-pop star G-Dragon and actress Park Shin-hye posting encouraging words and images of the yellow ribbons to show their solidarity.

© Seoul Plaza, Jeon Han, 10.04.2018, flickr

The event, the country’s most devastating in modern Korean history,  has been interwoven into the very fabric of Korean culture, including the country’s biggest export: K-Pop. In March 2016 girl-group Red Velvet released their MV for their ballad “One of These Nights.” The video, with it’s theme of water, boat-like set pieces, and somber-faced idols- as well as it’s timing-had many fans wondering if this was their tribute to the victims of the disaster. BTS’s  “Spring Day” MV,  featuring images of yellow ribbons, the ocean, themes of loss and hope, and it’s suspicious title, was also widely thought to be a tribute to the tragedy. In Spring of last year, Winner’s Mino chose to honor the victims of the Sewol with a ribbon tattoo.

In addition to K-pop nods, the disaster has been hot among the documentary scene. Since 2014, there have been numerous documentaries covering the sinking, most notably “Diving Bell: The Truth Will Not Sink with Sewol” (2014), “Sewol” (2015), and “After the Sewol” (2017). A feature film with Oh Il-kwon as director and starring actors Lee Chang-min and Im Sung-min was slated for release this month in time for the anniversary, but has since been halted due to funding concerns and out of respect for the families, some of which feel they are not ready to see the event portrayed on the big screen. The topic can be highly political, and though many families demand answers, some prefer to be left out of the discussion.

The Sewol Tragedy has been likened to a modern-day Titanic and is often compared in scope and impact to the U.S. on 9/11.  Like American flags wave in front of American homes and storefronts in September, so you will see the yellow ribbons waving in the breeze this April in Korea. They remind us to mourn for those we’ve lost, but also to live for them. We will not forget.

© Yang Xinmeng, 10.04.2018, CGTN


Featured Image Source: © Yellow ribbons hanging from the building of PSPD, Seohoi Stephanie Park, 10.04.2018, Korea Exposé

Hillary Dunn

Film Fanatic, lover of language, and connoisseur of culture. There's nothing that a new dress and a Matcha Latte can't fix.



  • Sherry Dunn
    3 years ago

    Very informative post, I remember when this event happened.

  • Pipsa
    2 years ago

    I wonder, as someone who lives in Europe, not Korea, would it be okay to wear the yellow ribbon an a sign of compassion? And where exactly can one get a yellow ribbon?

    • Vanessa
      2 years ago

      Of course it would be. This is something to remember it would be very cruel and imhumane to just forget about something as tragic as this. They could have lived if the government did their job and came in earlier with the proper rescue.
      You can buy yellow ribbon pins on eBay 🙂

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