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Pope has tough sell on materialism in South Korea

By Jung-yoon Choi

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Aug. 15 2014 8:50 a.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, Aug. 15 2014 8:50 a.m. MDT

The students of Gangnam, whose parents shell out big money for prestigious private tutoring and prep schools, are reportedly much more likely to be selected for the country's most prestigious university than students from less affluent areas.

"That reflects what materialism can do," Kim, the Seoul resident, said. "Kids can get a better education, and they then have a better edge."

But the breakneck push by South Koreans to modernize has a dark side, which can be partly seen in an April ferry sinking that killed 300 people, mostly high school students. Francis made sure that he reached out to victims of a disaster that has prompted widespread soul-searching over the nation's neglect of safety as it rapidly developed.

While there's pride here of local industrial titans that rival the best companies in the world, the country also has a history of disregard for basic safety practices, including in the ferry industry. The tragedy exposed regulatory failures that appear to have allowed the ferry Sewol to set off with far more cargo than it could safely carry.

Before Mass got under way, Francis met privately with about a dozen survivors of the ferry disaster and relatives of the dead. One of them, Lee Ho Jin, whose son was killed, asked the pope to baptize him, and Francis agreed to perform the ritual on Saturday, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

Lee, who has been in catechism classes for two years, participated in a 21-day pilgrimage undertaken by relatives of the victims, carrying a cross in honor of the slain children. The families said they gave the cross to the pope.

The relatives also presented the pope with a tiny yellow ribbon, a symbol of support for the ferry victims. The pope took the ribbon and wore it on his robe during the Mass.

A larger-than-normal crowd of more than 10,000, according to police, on Friday joined what has become a regular rally by family members of victims of the ferry sinking.

In his final prayer, Francis offered words of comfort to survivors and families. "May this tragic event which has brought all Koreans together in grief confirm their commitment to work together in solidarity for the common good," he said.

Francis arrived in Seoul on Thursday for a five-day visit and issued a plea for peace and unity on the war-divided peninsula. North Korea fired three projectiles into the sea just before he landed and another two soon after.

On Friday, North Korean media quoted a rocket researcher as dismissing the idea that the tests had anything to do with the pope, and said the launches were conducted on the 69th anniversary of Korea's independence from Japan.

Choi reported from Seoul. Associated Press writers Foster Klug and Youkyung Lee in Seoul contributed to this report. Follow Nicole Winfield on Twitter at twitter.com/nwinfield

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