Their daughter still among the missing, South Korean family is lost a year after ferry sinking

Lee Keum-hui's face lights up when she shows off pictures of her daughter. It's one of the few times she's happy.

"Isn't my Eun-hwa so pretty in this picture?" she asks, pointing to a photo of her daughter in elementary school, a red scarf draped over her head. Lee smiles, able for a few seconds to think about the girl without being consumed by misery over her fate.

Cho Eun-hwa was one of 304 people killed one year ago Thursday in the sinking of the South Korean ferry Sewol, and among nine whose bodies still have not been recovered. The 16-year-old and the vast majority of the other victims were students at Danwon High School who were on a school trip to the southern resort island of Jeju.

Her parents bitterly regret that the family took no pictures together since her elementary school days. The only recent photos they have of Eun-hwa were retrieved from the cellphone of her best friend. In most of them, a bespectacled Eun-hwa, her hair long and straight, poses with her fingers in a V-shape near her face.

In the apartment's living room, only two framed pictures hang on the wall: drawings of Jesus Christ and of Eun-hwa. The room is largely empty, no couches or table, only two dining room chairs.

"This one looks like she's crying. In the morning before I leave the house, I wipe tears away from her like this and say, 'Don't cry, don't cry,'" Lee says in an interview, rubbing her fingers on the part of the picture showing Eun-hwa's cheeks.


Eun-hwa and her mother were very close.

"She was a daughter who deeply loved her mom and always thought of her. When I stroked her hair and said that she was pretty, she stroked my hair too," Lee said. "When she woke up in the morning, she came and sat on my lap and kissed me. During lunch, she would call and chat about what kind of food she'd eaten with her friends."

She was good at math and excelled in academics. She said she wouldn't get married and would instead live with her mother. "I told her to do whatever she wanted. She would ask if she could become a government official if she studied hard for years."

"She worked really hard," Lee said. "That's why it hurts me so much. She should have had more fun."

Lee often had meals with her daughter and her friends, but now she dreads the possibility of meeting them on the street.

That's because she blames herself for her daughter's death, repeatedly calling herself a "criminal" and "sinner" for not protecting her.


Time seems to have stopped for Eun-hwa's family. Her brother, 20, has been on leave from college since the sinking and rarely leaves home. He locked himself in a room when The Associated Press interviewed his parents.

Eun-hwa's father is on leave from his company, which supplies components to automakers. With no other source of income, the family now lives on its savings.

During the first few days after the sinking, Lee couldn't shower or eat. Now she tries to eat well, determined to have the strength to find her daughter's body.

The family doesn't eat together anymore. Public holidays, including New Year's, pass without any exchanges with their relatives.

"I don't even know what's inside my fridge," Lee said.

The Sewol ferry and attempts to find Eun-hwa are the only topics that have brought the family together for the past year.

Her father, Cho Nam-sung, stumbles over his words when asked about his company. But when he talks about the ship and the search for the missing, he quickly recalls details that most South Koreans have forgotten, such as the date the last body was found inside the ship — Oct. 28 — and the section of the ship where his daughter was last seen. The parents believe her body is still inside the ship, which remains submerged.

The family had stayed for more than half a year on the island in southern Korea where rescue operations were based. When the government decided to cease searches in November, they returned home and did not leave the house for two months.

The anniversary of the sinking, however, has prompted her parents to go out to news conferences, to government offices and anywhere they believe they might get help finding their daughter's body.


Lee cannot forget the image of her daughter packing her luggage in the living room the night before she left for the port of Incheon to catch the ferry. A carry-on bag sitting wide open, Eun-hwa folded pants, put underwear in a plastic bag for each day, added snacks, all the while sending text messages to friends on her smartphone.

"I can still see it so vividly," she said, pointing to the living room. "We kissed at the door and she said she'd be back."

The morning of the ferry sinking, when the ship began tilting, Eun-hwa called her mom. Lee didn't think it was serious. "She said the ship was tilted, but I thought it was just strong waves and that Eun-hwa was probably seasick. I never thought it would be this kind of accident."

Lee holds the captain responsible for not evacuating the ship earlier, when her daughter might have had a chance. She also blames the government for lax safety standards and for botching the rescue, and for the education ministry that approved the school trip.

"If you ask Sewol families if any of them want to live in South Korea, there is probably no one," Lee said. "We have to end this pain in our generation. I really want to know. Why did my daughter have to go through such a tragedy? Why I should be missing my daughter for the rest of my life?"


For the past six weeks, Lee has been camping out during the day near a central Seoul plaza that has become a symbolic center for those who lost their loved ones during the sinking. She holds a picket demanding that the government pull the vessel from the water and asking the public to remember that there are still nine people missing.

Not everyone reacts warmly to her. Some point fingers or curse. Lee says she was one of the most emotional family members soon after the tragedy, but she now stays calm. She says anger won't help her get what she wants, which is to find her daughter's body. She also fears being filmed in a rage on someone's phone.

"I've left my child in the ocean for 358 days, and I don't know why I have to be holding a picket ... and why I have to be the one that people point fingers at. If they could understand my pain even just a little bit, they wouldn't do that."

The pain is something she feels almost everywhere.

"Whenever preschool kids walk by in a group, I find my eyes following them automatically. Eun-hwa used to be so small like them. Whenever I eat food that Eun-hwa used to love, I feel choked up," she says. "When I see young girls awkwardly putting on makeup, I think about how my Eun-hwa would put on makeup like that.

"I won't see any of that anymore. I wanted to take care of Eun-hwa's baby once she got married, but that's impossible now."


Lee can be reached at: