A Year After Ferry Disaster, South Koreans Await Answers | KERA News

A Year After Ferry Disaster, South Koreans Await Answers

Apr 15, 2015
Originally published on April 16, 2015 4:39 am

As South Korea marks the first anniversary of one of its worst maritime disasters — the sinking of the Sewol ferry — many family members are still pushing for answers about what went wrong and why so many lives were lost. The capsizing of the Sewol on April 16 last year killed 304 people. Most of them were students from one high school.

It's not hard to spot grieving parents in Seoul's central square: Their heads are freshly shaved. It's an Asian tradition showing determination, and the families have done it as part of their ongoing protest of the government response to the tragedy.

For weeks, they have marched, rallied and occupied Seoul's Gwanghwamun Square, the symbolic center of the city, pressing for the full and independent investigation South Korean President Park Geun-hye promised in the days after the ship went down. A year later, the investigation hasn't started, and the ferry still sits at the bottom of the ocean.

"What is the government trying to do? I don't know what they're trying to do. All I can see is they're trying to hide," says Jeong Jung-im.

This time last year, Jeong was sending the youngest of her two daughters, 16-year-old Kim Min-jun, on the Sewol for a school trip. A day and a half later, she and her husband learned the news that still haunts her. Kim was one of the more than 200 high school students who would never come home.

"I can at least cry ... I have tears in my eyes," Jeong says. "But my husband, he can't even cry. The anger just piles up inside him."

The captain of the ferry is serving jail time for negligence in abandoning the ship, and some incremental changes have been made since the disaster. Regulators tightened oversight of cargo loads, for instance, since prosecutors found the ferry capsized partly because it carried twice the legal limit of cargo on its final voyage.

But parents want an outside look at why rescue efforts took so long, what mistakes were made at official levels, and how lax enforcement might have played a role.

"Accidents like this keep happening and will keep happening," says Ryu Sang-il, a professor of public safety at Dong-eui University in Busan.

In South Korea, he says, high-speed economic growth trumps all other priorities. So a year later, it's hard to tell how much safety has really improved.

And now, a bitter political back-and-forth has stymied efforts to heal the wounds.

On one side are the Koreans who want more answers from the country's leadership.

On the other side are people like Jang Gi-chong. He leads counter-protesters who show up in the same public square as parents, saying families are holding back the country and should go home. He and other counter-protesters oppose further investigation, saying the prosecution of the ship's captain and focusing blame on the ferry company owners is enough.

"This problem, the Sewol incident, is definitely not an accident caused by government. To hold the government accountable for this? That's wrong," he says.

Then there are the loved ones who have only one demand — closure. Nine victims — one just 6 years old — are still missing, their bodies never recovered. Lee Keum-hui's daughter is one of them.

"When I think of my daughter, my heart breaks, because I think of how scared she must have been, how she must have cried out for me," Lee said, in an emotional news conference in Seoul.

She and other family members of the missing say they're not pressing for reform, they just want the ship to be towed out of the water.

"All I'm thinking about is I have to get her back. I know she's inside the Sewol ferry. So all I feel now is despair," Lee said.

President Park said last week she'd consider raising the Sewol, but set no date for a decision. The price tag for ship recovery — an estimated $110 million — is clearly divisive, as well. There's also no start date for the outside investigation parents have pressed for, leaving those seeking answers struggling to move on.

Hae Ryun Kang contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Next is South Korea - that country is marking the first anniversary of one of its worst maritime disasters, the sinking of the Sewol ferry. More than 300 people died when the ship capsized, and most of them were students from one high school. As NPR's Elise Hu reports, many of the victims' parents are still calling for answers.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: These days, it's not hard to spot a parent who lost a child in the Sewol sinking. They're donning freshly-shaved heads. It's an Asian tradition showing determination. The families did it in their ongoing protest of the government response to the tragedy. For weeks, they have marched.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

HU: And they've occupied Seoul's central square, pressing for the full and independent investigation South Korean President Park Geun-hye promised in the days after the ship went down. A year later, the investigation hasn't started, and the ferry still sits at the bottom of the ocean.

JEONG JUNG-IM: (Through interpreter) What is the government trying to do? I don't know what they are trying to do. All I can see is that they're trying to hide.

HU: That's Jeong Jung-im. This time last year, she was sending the youngest of her two daughters, 16-year-old Kim Min-jun, on the Sewol for a school trip. A day and a half later, she and her husband learned the news that still haunts her. Kim was one of the 304 people aboard the ferry who would never come home.

JUNG-IM: (Through interpreter) I can cry at least. I have tears in my eyes, but my husband, he doesn't even cry. The anger just piles up inside him.

HU: The captain of the ferry is serving jail time for negligence and abandoning the ship, and some changes have been made since the disaster. Regulators tighten oversight of cargo loads since prosecutors found the ferry capsized partly because of overloaded cargo. But parents want an outside look at why rescue efforts took so long, what mistakes were made at official levels and how lax enforcement might have played a role.

RYU SANG-IL: (Speaking foreign language).

HU: Ryu Sang-il is a professor of public safety at Dong-eui University in Busan. He says in South Korea super-speed economic growth trumps all other priorities. So a year later, it's hard to tell how much safety has really improved.

"Accidents like this keep happening and will keep happening," he tells us. And now all the efforts to heal are caught in a political back-and-forth; on one side, the Koreans who want more answers from the country's leadership, on the other side, people like Jang Gi-chong. He leads counter-protesters who show up in the same public square as the parents, saying the families are holding back the country and should go home.

JANG GI-CHONG: (Through interpreter) This problem, the Sewol incident, is definitely not an accident caused by government. To hold the government accountable for this? That's wrong.

HU: Then there are the loved ones who have only one demand - closure. Nine victims, one as young as six years old, are still missing, their bodies never recovered. Lee Keum-hui's daughter is one of them.

LEE KEUM-HUI: (Through interpreter) When I think of my daughter, my heart breaks, because I think of how scared she must have been, how much she must have cried out for me.

HU: She and other family members of the missing say they're not pressing for reform, they just want the ship towed out of the water.

KEUM-HUI: (Through interpreter) And all I'm thinking about is that I have to get her back. I know that she's inside the Sewol ferry. So all I feel now is despair.

HU: President Park said last week she'd consider raising the Sewol, but set no date for a decision. There's no start date for the outside investigation either, leaving those seeking answers struggling to move on. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.