North Korea sends condolences as mourning begins for ferry victims

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JINDO, South Korea -- With hopes of finding more survivors of the South Korean ferry sinking all but gone, some families, as well as the nation, began bidding farewell Wednesday to the students whose bodies have been recovered. And in an unusual gesture, North Korea sent its condolences.

In Ansan, a city south of Seoul, where the students' Danwon High School is located, fellow students, relatives and other mourners, some weeping and wailing, laid long-stemmed white chrysanthemums -- traditional flowers for funerals in Korea -- before an altar in a gymnasium.

On the altar was a row of photographs of students, many smiling, who had been found dead in the 6,825-ton ferry, which sank April 16 after capsizing during a trip from the port city of Incheon to the southern resort island of Jeju.

Survivors said most of the 325 second-year students on board for a class trip were trapped inside after the crew repeatedly urged them to stay where they were, even though the ship was badly listing. Most of the crew members, however, were among the first to flee the ship. Survivors have said they never heard an evacuation order.

North Korea sent its condolences through a telephone hotline at the truce village of Panmunjom on the border between North and South, the Unification Ministry of the South said. The North's Korean Central News Agency confirmed that the message had been sent. Seoul did not immediately respond.

The exchange of condolences between the two uneasy neighbors is not unprecedented. The North sent one in 2003, when an arson attack on a subway in the South killed 198 passengers. The South reciprocated in 2006, when the North suffered extensive flood damage.

Still, such a gesture from the strident North Korean regime was rare enough that it could have been taken as a major sign of thawing relations, except that it came a day after the South Korean Defense Ministry cited increased activity at an underground nuclear test site in northeast North Korea.

Politicians, government officials and citizens lined up at the high school memorial to offer their tribute to young lives lost in one of the nation's worst peacetime disasters. South Korea has been gripped by soul-searching over how the country -- no longer a third-world military dictatorship, but a globalized economic powerhouse -- could suffer a calamity of this scale.

Big digital screens on both sides of the altar showed cell phone messages sent from South Koreans nationwide. On a billboard outside, one mother had written, "My beloved daughter and son, I will carry you in my heart till I join you in heaven."

Grief, as well as anger, also swept through online communities of this highly wired nation. This week, a spontaneous campaign started online, with thousands of Facebook and Twitter users posting messages expressing sorrow for the victims, and many posters venting anger at the government and the ferry's crew and owner for not preventing the disaster. Many replaced their online ID photos with one showing a black funeral ribbon on a yellow background.

As of early today, the death toll had risen to 159, as divers recovered more bodies from inside the ship. The officials said 143 people, the vast majority of them students, were still missing and presumed dead. The ferry had been carrying 475 people when it sank.

Prosecutors filed paperwork seeking arrest warrants for three more members of the ship's 29-member crew. So far, seven of them, including Capt. Lee Jun-seok, have been arrested on various criminal charges, including accidental homicide, stemming from their decision to leave the ship before the passengers.


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