The seven missing hours. This number has been the hotbed for sensational rumors, conspiracy theories and politically polarized debates about how responsible the government — namely, Park Geun-hye — was for one of the country’s most tragic ferry disasters in recent memory.
On the day of the Sewol ferry sinking, in which more than 300 South Koreans lost their lives, then-President Park was accused of having been missing for seven crucial hours, the time between when the accident was first reported to her and when she held the first emergency meeting that afternoon. But Park is now being accused of having been ‘missing’ for an extra 30 minutes on that day, Apr. 16, 2014.
The ‘missing hours’ on the day of the disaster prompted various allegations about Park’s whereabouts, ranging from participating in a cult ritual to having a tryst with a married man. One lawmaker accused Park of having had botox injections, presenting before-and-after photos in the National Assembly.
On Oct. 12, the current presidential office — Moon Jae-in’s — announced that contrary to the Park administration’s initial claim, news of the sinking was reported to the president at 9:30 a.m. instead of 10 a.m., and Park administration officials changed the timing in Oct. 2014.
30 minutes may sound inconsequential, but the first hour of the accident is critical for rescue, so every minute counted. Botched rescue efforts during the first few hours have been widely blamed for causing such large casualties.
The lack of a well-executed rescue operation led to doubts of whether the president’s response at the time was lackluster. It wasn’t until 5:15 p.m. on the day of the sinking that Park presided over the first emergency meeting, at which Park reportedly asked, “The students were all wearing life jackets, so why was it so difficult to rescue them?”, indicating that Park lacked a solid understanding of circumstances on the scene.
The Park administration has insisted that Park was not, in fact, missing for seven hours, arguing that the president was informed of the sinking at 10:00 a.m. and responded after 15 minutes. Park’s whereabouts on that day were detailed in a timeline posted on the presidential office’s website last November. Now deleted, the post purported to ‘correct’ fake news.
One of the 13 charges the Constitutional Court examined during Park’s impeachment trial was dereliction of duties during the Sewol sinking. While ruling for her ouster, the Court deemed the charge itself an inadequate reason for impeachment.
In July, President Moon’s office found stacks of documents the previous administration had left behind, which contain information related to the corruption scandal. Critics see such announcements by the Moon administration as politically charged, but the presidential office objected, while asking the prosecutors to conduct an investigation.