There are Still People in the Sewol Ferry


August 29th, 2015 marked the 500th day since the sinking of the Sewol ferry on April 16, 2014. The tragedy lay bare Korea’s social problems and the government’s inability to safeguard its people. Over a year later, the Sewol movement continues to fight for their demands: raise the ferry, recover the nine missing bodies, carry out a full and independent investigation, and punish those responsible. In response, the government has tried to silence the Sewol movement and erase the disaster from the public consciousness. The International Strategy Center decided to re-cover the Sewol struggle to remind people that the struggle continues.

Moves to Erase the Sewol Disaster On June 19th, the police seized and searched the offices of 416 Solidarity composed of the Sewol Families Committee, the Sewol Tragedy National Task Force, and another 618 civil society groups. The police confiscated the cell phones and searched the cars and offices of the operation committee members, Park Laegoon and Kim Haejin. These actions were justified as part of an investigation on illegal demonstrations around the one-year commemoration of the Sewol disaster. Yet they failed to explain the police’s illegal actions during the demonstrations such as erecting illegal walls with police vehicles, comprehensive and sweeping obstruction of passage, and shooting capsaicin at protesters with water cannons. Park Laegoon was later arrested and detained by the police due to his participation in a series of protests related to the Sewol ferry disaster.

The government has also hindered more official actions taken by the Special Committee for Investigation into Sewol Ferry. Last November, the victims’ families and citizens proposed the “Special Law for Truth Investigation and Safe Society”, which passed through the National Assembly and was legally established. The committee, which aims to uncover the causes of the disaster, identify corruption, and determine responsibility was set last December; its members were chosen in March. However, they were unable to begin investigation because the government would not respond to a proposal for staff and a budget. Recently, the government decided to provide ₩8.9 billion in response to the committee’s request for a ₩16 billion budget for the investigation. The reduced budget is especially detrimental since the cut was focused on the investigation-related components: there was an 87% cut on travel expenses to field investigation, an 84% cut on researching the actual condition, and a 68% cut on research expenses for truth investigation.

Conflicts between the Special Committee and the government continue. On August 19th, the government conducted its first underwater probe in preparation for raising the ferry, but did not notify the committee of their plans. The committee, which learned of this fact through the media, went to the site, but was denied entrance. The committee denounced the government for intentionally excluding them, even though raising the ferry is the most important evidence in their investigation.

Recovering Sewol On November 11, 2014, the families of the remaining missing victims decided to suspend underwater search and demanded that the ferry be raised. Even though the government had previously stated that this was the only method to recover the missing bodies, they changed their position, stating that they needed to check if it was technically possible to raise the ferry – despite the fact (later revealed) that they had already concluded its feasibility. The government officially announced that they would raise the ferry around the one-year mark of the tragedy. Recently, the company Shanghai Salvage was selected to recover the ferry and began underwater probing. However, the process is not transparent. The victims’ families requests for involvement in the process were denied. Of chief concern is that not enough measures are being taken to keep the missing bodies from getting swept away underwater. According to Lim Youngae, bereaved mother of student Oh Junyoung, when divers hired by the families attempted to shoot their own footage of the underwater situation before salvaging of the ship, the government stopped them. Later, the government provided them with underwater footage they had denied having. “When we watched the whole footage, we couldn’t help but think that the nine missing bodies might already be washed away,” said Lim. “The prevention measures that the government had mentioned were not there. Therefore, we cannot believe what the government says. We need to keep an eye on the process until the Sewol ferry actually is safely on land.”

Untrustworthy Safety Measures The call for building a safe society has been ongoing since the disaster. Watching how the government responded to the MERS outbreak, people felt frustrated by the ineptness of the government. It seems the government has not learned anything from the Sewol Tragedy: Safety accidents have occurred, but no safety measures and preventative measures have been put in place. On March 19th, the government announced its intention to move toward “developing the safety industry” in a meeting promoting trade and investment under the Ministry of Commerce Industry and Energy.[ref]안전을 기업에 맡긴다? - 세월호 1년, 정부 안전정책 평가, 손진우, 오마이뉴스, 2015.04.21[/ref] Instead of investing in “safety measures,” the government is proposing investing in the "safety industry.” Despite the fact that safety accidents are occurring due to corporate pursuit of profit, the government wants to hand people’s safety to corporations. "Policy makers should put people first,” argues Lim. “We hope to be the last family members of such victims."

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We Won’t Give Up According to Lim, “the Sewol struggle is a fight between those who remember and those who try to erase the disaster. Since the government keeps intervening to weaken the movement, we need to stand together.” Fortunately, there are still many people who remember such as Remember 0416, Yellow Handkerchief, and local grassroots groups. We must not give up and struggle until our demands are met. Meanwhile, the victims' families tirelessly picket and collect signatures for a truth investigation and the recovery of the Sewol ferry. They also give open lectures informing people about the Sewol disaster. “At first we talked emotionally in the lectures, but these days we are having educational sessions with professionals such as professors and lawyers to give better lectures,” says Lim. “When I joined the struggle, there was one phrase that came to mind: ‘The people are love.’ Hope resides among people. Last year, I lost my son and sank into deep dark despair. Now, I have courage to fight against those who try to stop us. I see that hope when I see people with us. I hope that people do not let go of our hands" she added.

On July 29th, the victims' families and 416 Solidarity held a joint press conference to announce "82 tasks for raising the ferry, investigating truth and supporting commemoration.” They then requested that the Special Committee work actively, and that people stand with them and fight until the truth is revealed. With the promise "We won't forget. We will act", we must stand together to fight those who try to erase the disaster. We must achieve justice and build a society where such tragedy will not reoccur.

written by Hwang Jeongeun (General Secretary, ISC)