304 people died when the Sewol ferry sank on April 16, 2014
Victims' families have been calling for the vessel to be recovered
“Recover the Sewol ferry! Recover the truth!”
The crowd shouted the words defiantly, yards away from South Korea’s seat of power.
Thousands had gathered outside the Blue House, South Korea’s executive mansion, to celebrate the demise of President Park Geun-hye, after a Constitutional Court upheld a vote to impeach her Friday.
On April 16, 2014, the Sewol passenger ferry sank off the southwest coast of South Korea. As the country watched live broadcasts in horror, more than 300 passengers – most of them high school students on a field trip to the holiday island of Jeju – drowned.
A later investigation found evidence of negligence by the coast guard, and in the actions of the crew and captain on the day. Video emerged of Captain Lee Joon-seok, dressed only in his underwear, leaping into the arms of the Korean Coast Guard as hundreds remained trapped on the vessel. He was later convicted of murder.
While Park’s ouster satisfied the families of Sewol victims who wanted her out, there was little satisfaction in the court’s ruling that her handling of the disaster wasn’t grounds for impeachment.
As the ferry sank, Park appeared to be absent. She didn’t address the nation until seven hours after the ship started taking on water.
The disaster dogged her presidency from that day, and anger at Park only increased last year when revelations which emerged about her relationship with her confidante Choi Soon-sil re-opened questions about what Park was doing during her “missing seven hours.”
“That was a stain on her presidency,” John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, told CNN. “There was a palpable sense at the time that she wasn’t there.”
Fight goes on
In a semi-permanent protest camp on Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square, where tens of thousands of protesters gathered Saturday for a festival-like rally to celebrate Park’s impeachment, the mood among groups with connections to the Sewol ferry was bittersweet.
The camp has occupied the square since 2014, transforming over the years into a cultural space with installations criticizing the government and commemorating the victims of the disaster.
“Families of the Sewol Ferry victims are the ones who have been on the front line,” said 44-year-old Kim Gye-bong, who leads a weekly, volunteer-run workshop making hundreds of yellow ribbons that are used to commemorate the ferry’s sinking.
“(Friday’s) decision did nothing to reveal the truth or punish any person responsible,” she said.
A group which represents the families of victims called 416 Solidarity for the Sewol Ferry said in a statement that the court’s decision to ignore the disaster “is very regrettable.”
“Many volunteers and family members of the Sewol ferry victims aren’t satisfied,” Kim said.
“Other people say we won, I think it’s just the beginning.”
As South Korea prepares for a snap election – the court ruled that Park’s successor must be chosen within 60 days – the fate of the ferry is sure to be a key issue as the third anniversary nears on April 16.
Nine bodies are still unaccounted for, and families hope they will be recovered once the ferry, which currently lies 130 feet (40 meters) under water, is recovered.
Efforts to salvage the 6,825-ton vessel have been slow. A plan mooted last year by a Chinese-led consortium to inject air tanks and other buoyant material into the ferry and then use beams to raise the ferry has been delayed several times.
Outside the Blue House Saturday, the crowd sang a song commemorating the Sewol victims’ families, “The Truth Never Sinks.”
“We will never give up,” they sang. Pressure will be on the next government to prove that when it comes to salvaging the ferry, neither will they.