[French] Breaking the Silence So That Justice May Be Served: The Lies of the Sewol Shipwreck by Kim Takhwan

  • onJune 11, 2020
  • Vol.48 Summer 2020
  • byLaëtitia Favro
Les Mensonges du Sewol (The Lies of the Sewol Shipwreck)
Tr. François Blocquaux

A number of yellow ribbons still hang at Gwanghwamun Square as well as on the backs of a few cars – a reminder of the tragedy that plunged an entire country into mourning. On April 16, 2014, the Sewol ferry sank with three hundred and four passengers on board, the majority among them teenagers on a school trip. The national wave of emotion soon gave way to questioning: how could a modern country like South Korea let their children die this way? After the shock came the scandal, which became one of the reasons for the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye in March of 2017.

Although the catastrophe was highly documented, very little focus has been given to the professional divers recruited in the wake of the shipwreck. As an activist writer and author of successful historical novels, Kim Takhwan’s Les Mensonges du Sewol was inspired by the testimony of Kim Kwan-hong, a diver who took part in the 2014 rescue operations. The author was left in a state of shock following Kim Kwan-hong’s sudden death, which was in all likelihood a suicide. The diver’s voice is embodied by Na Kyong-su, the main character of the story. He writes a long letter to an investigating judge in defense of a colleague who is charged with negligent homicide following a fellow diver’s death.

This plea-letter becomes the common thread of the story, linking together a series of testimonies called “The Voices of April 16”: a fisherman, a taxi driver, a doctor, a photojournalist, and loved ones of the dead. Through the words of the diver Na Kyong-su and of the strangers brought together by tragedy, the reader is eventually left perplexed by the shortcomings of the Korean government’s intervention following the shipwreck. How could it be that none of the divers arrived at the ferry before April 18? Why was the media talking about the “rescue of the century” when there were only eight divers going back and forth between the surface and the wreck?

The professional divers soon understood that their job would not be about saving lives, but rather bringing the bodies of the deceased back to the surface. Alongside Na Kyong-su and his colleagues, the reader discovers the reality of the exhausting task. Fierce currents cross the channel where the ferry sank. Visibility under the sea is almost zero. The ship is a labyrinth filled with floating objects, where dividing walls might come crashing down. This harsh environment is accentuated by the horror of discovering the bodies of the trapped high school students.

Several times in his letter, Na Kyong-su explains that the divers are not prone to venting about the difficulty of their job. Silence is their natural element. Na Kyong-su has decided to speak first and foremost in support of Lyu Chang-dae, sixty years of age, charged with professional misconduct following a diver’s death. Lyu Chang-dae had supported the divers as they carried out their macabre task. A man who, despite the appalling conditions through which they had to navigate, led his men with calm and order as they searched for the victims’ bodies, watching over them as a father would.

On his first dive, Na Kyong-su encounters the body of a deceased student and cannot hold back his tears. He knows that the only way to bring the body back to the surface is to hold him tight in his arms so that the sea currents won’t carry him away. On the other end of the line which connects Na to the barge where the divers are housed, Lyu is cheering him on. Na knows that without this support, he cannot accomplish the mission.

This traumatic episode, like the entirety of the work, is carefully treated by Kim Takhwan with precision and modesty. Les Mensonges du Sewol is neither obscene nor sensational. Rather, the book tries to understand what really happened in the wake of the shipwreck by giving a voice to the voiceless, the divers who put their own safety on the line for a job that could cost them their own lives. Beyond its fascinating story, Les Mensonges du Sewol as a book is necessary. The writer gives his approach a global dimension by not mentioning “Sewol” until the Afterword, so that this type of event may never happen again, in South Korea or in any other country.


Laëtitia Favro
Literary Critic, Le Journal du Dimanche,
LIRE magazine

Author's Profile

Kim Takhwan made his literary debut in 1996 with the novel A Love Story of Twelve Whales. Historical novels are his forte, with several of them being adapted for television and cinema, including How Rueful to Be Forgotten (2002); I, Hwang Jini (2002); Death by Fiction (2003); Hyecho (2008); The Immortal Yi Sun-sin (2004); and Russian Coffee (2009). His most recent novel is The Magician from Joseon (2015).