KPI | April 23, 2015
A year has passed since the tragic April 16th, 2014 sinking of the Sewol Ferry in South Korea, which left 304 dead – the majority of whom were high school students. Despite it being one of the deadliest disasters in Korean history, there has been no substantive investigation of the tragedy to date. All reports indicate that the ferry was overloaded; that passengers were instructed to remain in their cabins while the captain and the crew abandoned ship; that rescue efforts were delayed or not undertaken for unexplained reasons; and missing or ignored safety regulations were part of the cause.
After year-long efforts of the families of the victims, calling for a thorough and impartial investigation of tragedy, the South Korean government has instead vilified the families, instructing police and National Security forces to conduct investigations of the families and their protest activities. Nonetheless, the families have been steadfast in their demand for a special law to create an independent investigative committee with subpoena and prosecutorial powers.
On April 16th, 2015, the anniversary of the disaster, rallies and protests took place not only in South Korea, but in cities in the United States as well. In Korea, where the families have been staging protests constantly, around 13,000 police and 470 police buses were deployed, arresting 100 protestors. It was the largest protest organized by the victims’ families in recent weeks, with crowds in the tens of thousands.
There was a march and rally in New York City, April 19th, in solidarity with the Sewol Families, staged by the broad based NY/NJ SESAMO group (People in Solidarity with the Families of the Sewol Ferry). Supporters crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and then held a rally at Foley Square. The group called out the names of the 304 victims, and stated that the rallies would continue until the Sewol Ferry is raised from the sea, intact. As supporters spoke and sang, the group read the 4.16 Manifesto of the Sewol Families and Supporters:
The Korean president abandoned Korean citizens and escaped the country. The President’s vague speech and inconsiderate behavior devastated the whole country.
[On the day of one-year anniversary President Park left Korea for a Latin American trip, after a vague and empty speech.] President Park said that the Sewol ferry will be raised to the surface for investigation. But instead of saying WHEN, she said “as soon as possible”. [This might be politically calculated, with the upcoming election in mind.]
Nine missing bodies are still inside the sunken ferry. Technical aspects of its salvage were estimated long time ago, but only now, she says, can they plan and prepare the salvage carefully. This is a shameful confession of her negligence that she did not prepare for the investigation yet. We have been waiting in vain for a firm commitment and solid decision.
She said that public and private groups will jointly investigate the Sewol tragedy. Her words may sound nice but are deceptive. One might think the investigation had started. The truth is that it didn’t, because of her. Her Presidential Decree of March 27th debilitates the Sewol Special Act and disables any independent investigation. [The presidential decree laid out a specific execution plan for the Sewol Special Act, but the President did not consult families of the victims nor the Sewol investigation committee regarding this. Such also damages democracy and opposes the constitution. It involves budget cuts and it installs high-ranking officials in central posts of the investigation committee. While the government needs to be inspected for its corruption and legal loopholes, the guilty party will be examining themselves, and this does not make for an independent investigation.]
The government failed to rescue passengers, and it also failed to support the families of victims. Instead, the Korean government talks loudly about financial compensation, again with empty words such as “they will do their best, and “they will make an effort”. When the tragic accident is not even being investigated properly, it is disrespectful to discuss money, and they are adding insult to injury.
The victims and their families have the right to have the deaths explained and to have the accident investigated. After Sewol, we want to make a safer society, but the government has again turned its back on us. The current government is trading safety for economic profits, and they are turning the rescue operation into new business opportunities. The Sewol investigation committee wanted to examine safety regulations overall within the society, but the government has restricted their role to marine accidents only.
The President blames the value system and personality of Korean citizens for an unsafe society. She says that Koreans are not sensitive enough about safety issues. But the government sabotaged the society’s safety net, and when faced with danger, citizens are on their own to save themselves, unless they can afford the high price of hiring rescue services. The President told the victims’ families to live like normal families. The government is trying to silence us, ordering us to “stay still” even while in danger. The government hired police to use violence and tear gas at our peaceful rallies.
We are so disappointed by the President that we cancelled the anniversary memorial today. We had hoped in vain that she would cancel the Presidential Decree which nullifies the Sewol Special Act. [We march, we go on hunger strike, and 70 of us shaved our heads in protest. But she does not listen. She hires police to throw tear gas at our faces and to block our marches.] On the day of the accident and even at its one year anniversary, the President is simply absent, physically and spiritually. The President abandoned the people. The people now abandon the President, who does not qualify. We will march to the Blue house today.”
The [brackets] refer to additional comments made by the speaker in presenting the manifesto.
For details on the questions surrounding the Sewol Ferry disaster, please refer to the KPI September 2014 article: South Korea: Still Stonewalling about the Sewol.