Why Sewol Families Still Fight

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They have been denied.

First, they were denied access to truthful information. Then they were denied physical access to the National Assembly and the Blue House. In the end, they were denied justice and basic human dignity. They have been rendered invisible, and their voices, mute.

“They have been grieving too long”.

“They mourn shamelessly, like uncivilized beasts”.

“Their grief is hurting the national morale and economy”.

“Enough already. It’s time to move on”.

I have been following the unfolding of the Sewol ferry disaster from the very beginning, and these are some of the words I have personally heard being spoken about the bereaved families. And I will say this once and for all: Any expectation I had for South Korea as a modern democratic state disappeared from my mind after seeing how this government handles the ferry disaster and treats the victims’ families and survivors.

Just one year ago, the entire nation was praying for the safe return of the passengers trapped inside the capsized ferry, and later grieving the deaths of 304 victims, 250 of them high school students on a school field trip.

We now know with some certainty how and why the ship capsized and sank on that fateful day. But questions still remain, especially regarding the government’s fumbled rescue efforts.

One errors after another turned the accident into a tragedy of incomprehensible magnitude. Evidence now shows that there was enough time to alert and evacuate all the passengers as the ship listed. But the Coast Guard manipulated the initial report to cover up their fatal mistakes. The line of command during rescue efforts was clearly dysfunctional, and President Park Geun-hye’s whereabouts during the crucial 7 hours on the day are still unaccounted for.

Out of 325 students onboard, only 75 escaped the ferry. It didn’t take long for all missing passengers’ families to become families of the deceased.

Since then, the bereaved families’ demand has been consistent: the truth. They fought hard throughout last year for a special law, which would enable an independent commission to investigate fully and transparently the government’s handling of the disaster. The law, however, became stuck in a political gridlock as the Blue House  and the ruling party turned a blind eye, emboldened after winning the by-election in July by a landslide. The law was  passed only in November, 200 days after the sinking, but in a way that granted the commission a much reduced mandate compared to what the families felt was necessary for uncovering the truth.

While it is only appropriate that an impartial investigation take place and the families be given proper compensation, rumors have spread that these parents are only after money and privileges. Some conservatives callously call them “profiteers of coffins” and “commies”, and their contempt has turned into hatred, sometimes expressed in the most horrifying way. Kim Young-oh, a Sewol student victim’s father that I have befriended, went on a fasting for 46 days in order to generate support for  the independent commission, but far-right activists staged a binge fest near his tent in downtown Seoul to mock him and other Sewol supporters. His personal life was ruthlessly dissected, and he was forced to prove his love for the late daughter and fitness as a father even as he neared the brink of death. His struggle is dramatic, but it is illustrative of what the bereaved families have gone through after the sinking of the ferry.

As novelist Kim Hoon put it in his emotionally charged essay, the South Korean state and its ruling class have determinedly turned its eyes away from the victims and dismissed the bereaved families as seeking only to benefit from their misfortune. “Sewol” has become a taboo word, and the bereaved families, South Korea’s untouchables. Once ordinary parents and citizens, they have had their lives turned upside-down, and their Post-traumatic stress disorder aggravated by what they call the government’s inaction and foul play.

Many bereaved parents question the government’s willingness to assist with the probe and hold itself accountable, and have quit their jobs to seek answers about the circumstances of their children’s deaths. On top of psychological trauma inflicted by their children’s deaths, they are enduring economic hardship and worsening public opinion. Here again, the government has chosen not to offer proper mental and financial care. Instead, it recently outraged the families by imposing a clause of automatic legal reconciliation on anyone who receives compensation or subsidy.

In short, the Sewol families have been disowned by their own government. The degree of neglect and breach of social contract they suffer borders on a human rights crisis.

I once noted that the entire country of South Korea is like the Sewol ferry: fancy appearance built on layers of corruption, cover-ups, strong resistance to reform, and lack of transparency. 16 April 2015 marks the one-year anniversary of the sinking, but even after a tragedy of this scope and scale, South Korea has been quick to revert to its old habits. There have been numerous preventable large-scale accidents even after the ferry disaster. Reports show that safety regulations and conditions have not been properly implemented or monitored.

I have been working closely with the Sewol families, observing and documenting their saga. They are just ordinary people, kind and warm-hearted. But their han — that profound angst at the core of one’s being — is very real and powerful. There is a strong sense of community and solidarity among the bereaved families. They have become a big family of their own and stand united despite differences in opinion and desire. They have been incredibly patient, resilient, and supportive toward one another, and I admire their nobility. Even though they would very much like to return to their normal lives, they will not give up their fight just yet. Because they are parents, and there is nothing parents won’t do for their children, especially when the lives of the latter are put to a sudden and painful end under inexplicable circumstances. And because they believe truth and justice have not been properly served. I hope their struggle will bear fruit and they will find their peace of mind soon. I also hope that they will get properly compensated for all the injustice and indignity that they have experienced.

Today is the Sewol ferry disaster’s one year anniversary, but President Park Geun-hye is leaving for a tour of Latin America after a short visit to the site of the sinking. No minister or member of the ruling party will attend the bereaved families’ commemoration service. Much has been said and done since 16 April 2014, but in reality, South Korea has not taken a single step forward.

10 Comments

  1. This article is infuriating, i didn’t realise the depths to which the ruling party had lowered themselves to.

    I love Korea, but I hate the power that the elderly hold here. They are totally out of touch, yet control and hinder the fate of the very capable youth.

  2. “No minister or member of the ruling party will attend the bereaved families’ commemoration service.”
    I can understand that someone who have first-hand interaction with the families will be more likely fighting alongside them and their interests, but I would rather see an assessment about the situation as a whole, especially from someone who had been able to talk with them directly. For example, the families’ stand on why the prime minister was blocked from paying his respects to the deceased. It would be perfectly acceptable if they would say that they felt so repulsed by it, among other reasons.
    Again, I understand the grieving families, want them to obtain their justice from the government, and don’t agree the least bit on how the government handled the situation. But I would have liked a more well-rounded, information-full, trying-to-consider-everything article from someone who’s got a first-hand glimpse of the situation. (I am actually most curious about their answers.) This one-sided essay is a little misleading on that part, and can spark irrational anger from people who haven’t been able to read all the articles about Sewol. (I’m also not one who have read ALL the articles. It just so happens that I read the one about the prime minister before this.)

    • Thanks for the comment.

      It is true that there was no official plan by ministers to attend the service in Ansan, though the bereaved families had sent out invites to President, ministers and members of the ruling Saenuri Party.

      On the 16th, the newly made Ministry of Public Safety and Security was to hold the National Safety Day at COEX instead, and the ministers decided to attend this event or skip attending any altogether. There are many articles in Korean criticising the cabinet’s decision such as this one from April 15th:

      http://www.hankookilbo.com/v/9115e79cf60848e5b4f6f7562a2db7f2

      My article was to be published on the morning of the 16th. I had finished writing it the night before, and until then, there was no sign. President Park’s visit to the port was issued under an embargo in the afternoon of the 15th, but was widely circulated by the night, so I included that. Upset by this last-minute change and what they perceived as a PR stunt, however, the relatives who remained in Jindo closed down the make-shift altar and left to boycott her visit.

      Prime Minister Lee Wan-goo also “showed up” at the service, without consulting the families beforehand. It was a breaking news:

      http://news.khan.co.kr/kh_news/khan_art_view.html?artid=201504160911361&code=910100

      Again, you have to keep in mind that until the very day of the anniversary, there was no official response. The visit by the party leadership was decided 2 days before the anniversary.

      http://view.asiae.co.kr/news/view.htm?idxno=2015041316530259382

      Many families suspect that the recent graft scandal involving Lee and the subsequent dipping of the approval rating before the upcoming by-election on April 29th have prompted them to have a sudden change of plan and make an appearance: another sign of insincerity.

      I was away in Jindo on the 15th, out covering the protest all day through the night on the 16th, and wasn’t feeling well today, so I missed the timing to revise the part. Thanks for pointing it out and giving me an opportunity to explain further.

      • Thank you so much for clearing that up. Glad to be able to get some insights on what the families are really thinking on the issue.
        Yet I can’t help but agree with Mike about the asking-for-the-truth part. Don’t we already know the reason why the Sewol sank? What they need is not the truth (they already know it) but justice for the children who drowned. All the officials responsible for bribery and those who allowed that bundle of rusting metal to sail should be punished; that is what I think they should be asking for.
        As of this time, the Incheon-to-Jeju ferry route for travelers have been halted. (Found this out when we were planning for our trip to Jeju.)

  3. Thank you for this article. This article described perfectly what I’ve been feeling regarding the Sewol issue for the past 1 year. The intensity and will behind those who belittle, denigrate, and attack the surviving families of the Sewol victims are disturbing, and the complete lack of progress in achieving better sense of public safety has inspired nothing but despair. Every time I read “지겨워” in the comments about Sewol, I feel sorry for the families for having to deal with something like that… and I feel sorry for the commenter, who has evidently lost his or her basic sense of human decency.

    My thoughts and feelings towards Sewol has been very jumbled and incoherent. Reading this article has helped me make some of those thoughts more clear.

  4. “the bereaved families’ demand has been consistent: the truth.”

    What is this truth that they’re searching for? The truth about what? (Honest question, not sarcastic.) Cronyism and a resulting lack of enforced regulations led to the Sewol’s sinking. The families should be demanding punishments for those who allowed the Sewol to operate, as well as reforms to the entire system.

    Also, not trying to defend PGH, but her whereabouts at the time of the crisis don’t change anything either way. Regardless of where she was, the tragedy would have played out the exact same way.

    • “Cronyism and a resulting lack of enforced regulations led to the Sewol’s sinking.”

      Right now, the narrative being pushed is that it was the company’s (and their employees’) fault and nothing more. Your conclusion about the tragedy (about corruption/incompetence) is the truth that the families are trying to get at. And they are indeed demanding punishments for the responsible party that would be exposed by the truth they’re searching for as well as reform to the entire system.

  5. Same with our President here in the Philippines. Opting to attend a car show instead of visiting the commemoration service of 44 soldiers that died in Mamasapano.

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