Life on hold in South Korea, a nation paralysed by tragedy
Political campaigns suspended, TV shows and concerts cancelled as stunned South Koreans wonder how such a ferry disaster could happen
Agence France-Presse in Seoul
Stunned by this week's ferry disaster involving hundreds of missing schoolchildren, South Korea has gone into shock, with political campaigns suspended, television shows and concerts cancelled and vigils held to register grief at the unfolding tragedy.
The 6,825-tonne ferry carrying 475 people, mostly high school students, sank off the country's southwest on Wednesday. Nearly 300 people are dead or missing, with search efforts making little progress.
As images of victims and distraught families fuelled the nationwide mood of despair, major television stations stopped airing dozens of prime-time soap operas and popular entertainment shows - especially any involving music and dance.
They have been replaced with special news coverage of the accident or documentaries.
"This is no time for laughter or joy. We plan to mourn the victims in as sombre a mood as possible," said Han Kyung-chun, a producer at KBS TV.
The two main political parties imposed a temporary ban on campaigning for critical local elections in June.
Companies have cancelled social business events, while provincial governments have indefinitely suspended planned festivals, concerts and firework shows.
Dozens of K-pop stars and actors have postponed album releases and promotional events.
The country's three beer brewers - Lotte, Oriental Brewery and Hite Jinro - pulled their party-oriented commercials.
Professional baseball and soccer teams are keeping cheerleaders off the pitch and toning down the amplified music used to pump up the crowds.
South Korea's largest Buddhist order launched a nationwide prayer meeting at its 2,500 temples for the safe return of the missing. "We express our deepest regret and grief over the tragic incident," the Jogye Order, which claims 10 million followers, said.
Of the 475 people on board the ferry when it capsized, 352 were high school students from Ansan city, just south of Seoul. It has been in a state of collective mourning since the disaster struck.
Hundreds of students and parents held a tearful vigil in the school, holding out paper messages like "Don't lose hope" and "I miss your smile" - illuminated by the smartphones they held up to the sky.
Other candlelit vigils by civic groups are planned in several cities including the capital, Seoul.
The ferry tragedy has rocked the foundations of Asia's fourth-largest economy, where modernisation was thought to have consigned such large-scale disasters to history.
With the exception of a subway station fire in 2003 that claimed 192 lives, there have been no major disasters for nearly two decades.
A Seoul department store collapsed in 1995, killing more than 500 people, while nearly 300 people died when a ferry capsized off the west coast in 1993.
Seoul's online community was flooded with hundreds of thousands of messages of anger and despair, with many voicing frustration with the speed and effectiveness of the rescue effort.
"What's the point of having the world's fastest internet, coolest smartphones and the best shipbuilding industry when you can't pull that ship out of water and save our kids?" one user said.
"I thought our country was more developed than countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh, but maybe I was wrong," posted another.