Anger is still sim­mer­ing one year af­ter S. Korea Se­wol ferry catas­tro­phe


South Kore­ans mark the first an­niver­sary this week of the Se­wol ferry dis­as­ter which scarred the na­tional psy­che and left a last­ing le­gacy of bit­ter­ness, mis­trust and di­vi­sion.

For the rel­a­tives of the 304 vic­tims, es­pe­cially the fam­i­lies of the 250 high school chil­dren who died, the past 12 months have done lit­tle to numb the pain and grief — or the anger.

“Don’t you ever say it has al­ready been a year. Don’t you ever say we should move on. We are still living that day,” said Lee Keum-hui, who lost her 16-yearold daugh­ter when the Se­wol went down on April 16.

For Lee’s fam­ily, the past year has been es­pe­cially wrench­ing, as her daugh­ter was one of the nine vic­tims whose bod­ies were never re­cov­ered — de­priv­ing them of the clo­sure of a fu­neral.

In deeply Con­fu­cian South Korea, a proper fu­neral is es­sen­tial to show re­spect for the dead and al­low their souls to rest in peace.

Th­ese days much of Lee’s time is spent pe­ti­tion­ing or tak­ing part in protests with her hus­band to push the gov­ern­ment to bring the 6,825-tonne ves­sel to the sur­face.

Fam­ily ‘bro­ken apart’

“My whole fam­ily is bro­ken apart ... all we feel now is de­spair,” Lee said.

The Se­wol was car­ry­ing 476 peo­ple when it sank off the coun­try’s south­west.

The shock ac­ci­dent — which plunged the whole na­tion into a months-long pe­riod of in­tense mourn­ing — was largely blamed on the ship’s il­le­gal re­design and over­load­ing.

But it also laid bare deep­er­rooted prob­lems of cor­rup­tion, lax safety stan­dards and reg­u­la­tory fail­ings at­trib­uted to the coun­try’s re­lent­less push for eco­nomic growth.

Hopes that the tragedy would prompt an over­haul that would tackle is­sues like un­healthy ties be­tween busi­nesses and reg­u­la­tors have largely been dashed.

Fam­i­lies and their sup­port­ers have re­peat­edly staged street protests and sit-ins, urg­ing Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye to de­liver on her prom­ise of a thor­ough, in­de­pen­dent in­quiry and to sal­vage the ship.

Af­ter months of po­lit­i­cal bickering, Seoul law­mak­ers fi­nally passed a bill in Novem­ber cre­at­ing a 17-mem­ber com­mit­tee to probe the dis­as­ter.

But rel­a­tives say the gov­ern­ment is seek­ing to in­flu­ence the out­come by ap­point­ing of­fi­cials to key com­mit­tee posts.

“It’s bad enough that we haven’t even been able to start the probe a year af­ter the ac­ci­dent,” said Lee Suk-tae, the com­mit­tee chair­man nom­i­nated

by the fam­i­lies.

‘Last chance for change’

“I know public in­ter­est may be fad­ing ... but this may be the last chance to rein­vent our na­tion into a safer one,” Lee said.

Pres­i­dent Park’s ap­proval rat­ings have only re­cently started to re­cover af­ter plum­met­ing in the wake of the dis­as­ter amid se­vere crit­i­cism of the of­fi­cial emer­gency re­sponse.

The main fo­cus of the ini­tial out­rage was the cap­tain and crew, most of whom fled the ship while hun­dreds re­mained trapped on board.

Capt. Lee Jun-seok and 14 of his sur­viv­ing crew were handed jail terms rang­ing from five to 36 years in Novem­ber, with Lee con­victed of gross neg­li­gence and dere­lic­tion of duty. The tragedy not only scarred the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies but also the sur­vivors, in­clud­ing the 75 stu­dents who have faced the im­pos­si­ble chal­lenge of re­turn­ing to a high school haunted by the ab­sence of 250 dead class­mates.

Many adult sur­vivors have also found it hard to re­sume a nor­mal life, dis­play­ing clear symptoms of post- trau­matic stress dis­or­der that, in some cases, have re­sulted in lost jobs and di­vorce.

Kim Dong-soo, a truck driver who was lauded for res­cu­ing around a dozen teenagers from the sink­ing ship, slit his wrists in a failed sui­cide at­tempt last month.

“When­ever I close my eyes or even look at a win­dow, I still see the faces of the chil­dren trapped in­side the ship,” Kim told re­porters from his hos­pi­tal bed.

“Peo­ple think I’m over it be­cause I look OK phys­i­cally ... but I’m never over it,” he said.

The vic­tims’ fam­i­lies plan to mark the an­niver­sary with a se­ries of can­dle­light vig­ils and more protests to de­mand a truly in­de­pen­dent probe and the rais­ing of the sunken ves­sel.

Park promised last week to “ac­tively” con­sider the sal­vage re­quest, which is es­ti­mated to carry a US$ 110 mil­lion price tag.

South Korean news­pa­pers have been largely sup­port­ive of the fam­i­lies’ de­mands, ar­gu­ing that bring­ing the Se­wol to the sur­face could have a heal­ing ef­fect.

“Rais­ing the ves­sel could help the sur­viv­ing fam­i­lies gain clo­sure,” the coun­try’s largest cir­cu­la­tion news­pa­per, the Cho­sun Ilbo, said in an ed­i­to­rial ti­tled: “Time to put the ferry tragedy be­hind us.”

Leav­ing the ship on the sea floor, on the other hand, “could leave so­cial and po­lit­i­cal dis­con­tent sim­mer­ing,” the daily warned.

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