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S. Korean Community Waits And Prays For Its Missing Students


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. For the first time since a ferry capsized and sank off the coast of South Korea Wednesday, divers have begun to recover bodies from inside the sunken vessel. The death toll has passed 50 with more than 250 still missing. Most of the passengers were students from a single high school outside the capital city. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on the community and how they're coping.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Tears are wiped and shoulders are padded at the Dream Church. It's a large Methodist congregation in Ansan, a satellite city south of Seoul. One of the congregation's young members was aboard the ferry and is now missing. At an Easter Sunday service, the church's pastor, Kim Hae Jong (ph) prays for the ferry's passengers and for his community.

KIM HAE JONG: (Through translator). There are still lives clinging desperately to hope beneath the cold waters. Lord, please be with them. Give them strength until the final moment. Let your peace and mercy be with the victims, the families and all of us watching. Please restore this land of Ansan. Don't let it fall apart or let us succumb to despair.

KUHN: The church is a lively community center with its own cafe, fitness center and swimming pool. Assistant Pastor Isaac Kim says special services have been added in the wake of the ferry disaster to help the community cope.

ISAAC KIM: We have a special time for the missing and for the parents and relatives. And we have two prayer trees and we tie yellow ribbons expecting the coming-back of students and kids.

KUHN: What sort of things are you telling the members of your congregation to help them get through this difficult time?

KIM: We did everything financially and personally. Near the end, we are very careful not to hurt them and not to expose them to a media. We want to care and protect them.

KUHN: Pastors at some churches said that they were too mentally exhausted to speak. The Danwan High School, where most of the ferry passengers were from, and the local hospital, where the bodies of the dead are being brought, have closed their doors to the media. Outside the Dream Church, I met Iha Jung (ph). She's a senior at the high school next to the Danwan High School. And for her, this disaster hit very close to home.

IHA JUNG: (Through translator). Obviously I've been deeply affected. I can't really study and the general atmosphere at our school is very depressed. But I think studying and grades are not so important at this moment. What is important right now is to empathize with the victims and the families.

KUHN: Life for many of South Korea's young people is full of shared or similar experiences - high school field trips, often to Jeju Island, were the ill-fated ferry was headed, grueling college entrance exams, national military service for young men and stiff competition to land jobs with top companies. Iha Jung (ph) says this is why the ferry accident is so scary for her.

JUNG: (Through translator). We took a field trip to Jeju Island last year when I was in 11th grade. But we went by plane, so that disaster could've happened to my sister. It could've been pretty much anyone in our community.

KUHN: She goes over to a board covered with written prayers. She reads out-loud the ones she wrote. It imagines her welcoming back young ferry passengers, who have been rescued and returned home.

JUNG: (Through translator). Thanks for coming back. I know you've been through a lot. Let's get something delicious to eat and get back in good health.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn. NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.