Fight of a lifetime: The Sewol struggle for a safe world

by Dae-Han Song (Chief Editor, The [su:p])

Mar. 10, the president is brought down. Two weeks later, the Sewol ferry is brought up. Thus the stage is set for the final scene of a struggle started on Apr. 16 of 2014 when the extraordinary was inflicted upon the ordinary, live on television. As the Sewol sank into the ocean, 304 people died. 250 of them were second year high school students going to Jeju on a trip as universal to Koreans 1 as senior prom is to people in the United States. The Sewol ferry rolled, completely capsized, then sank into the ocean taking with it 304 lives. In Korea and around the world, millions of tears were shed over the Sewol; thousands of miles were marched on its behalf; and millions of ribbons assembled and distributed to become a symbol of solidarity and dissent. The desperate attempts to rescue the passengers became a fight for truth and justice, then transformed into a quest to create a safe society turned right side up.

At the core of the fight are the families and their relentless spirit against government cover-ups, media smear campaign, repression, public backlash, frustrated investigations, and even timid politicians. What turned the fight into a social movement were the millions that made and wore ribbons and collected signatures, marched and clashed with the police alongside the families. Candlelight protests have brought down a president and brought up the ship. All polls indicate a change in government in the Blue House on May 9, thus finally making possible an investigation to find truth and justice for the victims of the Sewol. This is their story.

Worse than a failed rescue
On April 16 of 2014 at 8:50 AM, the Sewol ferry begins to capsize into the ocean. Within 40 minutes, the Coast Guard’s helicopter arrives at the scene, soon followed by a Coast Guard boat. Yet, the Coast Guard does not enter the ferry nor attempt an evacuation of the passengers. Instead, it saves the crew while the Coast Guard captain transmits video to the Blue House on his cell phone. Fishermen at the site of the accident rescue passengers, but are ordered to evacuate the crash site. Inside the ferry, hearing news that the Coast Guard has arrived, 304 passengers regain hope and wait for rescue. By 10:15, the ferry is completely capsized. The last passenger is saved at 10:21. At the “control tower,” President Park is told about the accident but only makes her first official appearance seven hours later at 5:15 PM at the disaster control center. The families that have come down to Paengmok Harbor to search for their loved ones are confronted with misinformation about the number and names of the survivors. As the golden hour of rescue slips by, the boat is completely overturned. Families’ only hope for survival are air pockets inside the ferry. The Coast Guard notifies the parents that there are hundreds of ships and tens of helicopters at the crash site. The families charter a private boat to the crash site and find out no rescue is happening. In the coming days, the reality cements that all of the 304 passengers have drowned awaiting rescue and that worse than a failed rescue was no rescue at all.


A little until after 10 AM, the students awaiting rescue from the Coast Guard outside are still sending messages and texts to their parents with one common theme: “We are going to get rescued.” Above, a student transmits a video call telling his parents, “If only I can live. Mom, dad, I love you.”

Legislating truth and justice
In order to confront the government’s contradictions about the rescue operations and to investigate and punish those responsible, on May 6, the 4.16 Sewol Victims/Missing/Survivor’s Family Task Force Committee (4.16 Family Task Force) is formed and begins collecting signatures for a bill to create a special body to investigate and punish the responsible. They ask the special body be given such legal authority to overcome the government’s inertia and growing resistance to the families’ pursuit of the truth. While publicly apologizing and taking responsibility, behind the scenes, President Park through the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF) and the ruling party works to impede the investigation. The 4.16 Family Task Force collects 3.5 million signatures in 70 days. On July 14, two days before passage of the bill, the 4.16 Family Task Force escalates pressure on the National Assembly by starting an indefinite fast and occupying its front steps and Korea’s main square in Gwanghwamun. A week later, they start another occupation near the Blue House requesting a meeting with the president as she had promised. The ruling and opposition party are unable to reach agreement on a bill with full investigative and prosecutorial authority. The families continue to gather signatures around the country, collecting over 6 million. One of the parents, Kim Young-oh continues fasting for 46 days. As part of their efforts to garner public support, the families and supporters succeed in getting a personal meeting with Pope Francis during his visit to Korea. On Nov. 7, after 119 days of occupation and a total of 6 million signatures, a bill finally passes the National Assembly. While it doesn’t contain prosecutorial and investigative authority, it guarantees family involvement in the process.


Sewol families collecting signatures (


The first round of petitions presented at the victims’ altar on July 14.(Source:


Sewol family members sleeping during their 119 day occupation in front of the National Assembly.(Source:


The families flag down the Pope, and Kim Young-oh manages a personal encounter handing the Pope his plea for help in finding truth and justice. [Source (top) (bottom)]

Impeded investigations
As part of the new law, a preparatory committee for the Special Investigation Committee (Special Committee) is launched on Dec. 17. 2014. The composition 2 of the Special Committee allows the ruling party to appoint five (out of the 17) committee members. The ruling party and Park administration continue undermining and impeding the investigation to the truth. The ruling party with the help of its appointees fabricates a media smear campaign. 3 The Park Administration ignores the implementation plan proposed by the Special Committee, and through the MMAF unilaterally introduces a counterplan that undermines and weakens the Special Committee: The support staff for the Special Committee would be made up of the Coast Guard and the MMAF, the two main government bodies targeted for investigation; the investigation’s scope would be limited to the government’s investigation; the Special Committee would be limited to proposing a response plan for just maritime accidents. Furthermore, the number of support staff would be reduced from the originally proposed 125 to 90, with the majority working for the government. 4 In response, the families escalate their struggle and call for the abolishment of the government’s implementation plan. They shave their heads in resolution, march from their hometown in Ansan 5 to the National Assembly and then to Gwanghwamun. On May 1st, they attempt their first march (of many) to the legally permitted 100 meters from the Blue House but are stopped by police cannons with pepper laced water. From Feb. 23 to Jun. 13, to express frustration with the investigation, a bereaved father and daughter walk across the country alternating between taking three steps and bowing and hauling a replica of the Sewol hundreds of kilometers from Paengmok Harbor up north to Seoul. Despite the attacks and sabotage, the Special Committee collects evidence (much of it from family members) and holds three public hearings.


Feb. 23 - Jun. 13. A bereaved father and daughter walk from Paengmok Harbor to Seoul. They haul a replica out of the sea and take turns hauling it and doing three steps and a bow[Source (top) (bottom)]  



Apr.  2. Parents express their resolution against the government issued implementation bill. ( )


Apr. 4 - 5. The families march from Ansan to the National Assembly to Gwanghwamun.(


May 1. Families attempt to march to 100 meters of the Blue House but are stopped by police hose and pepper infused water. (


May 2. A family member exhausted after an all-night struggle passed out on the street.(

More questions than answers
The Special Committee’s limited authority has little success countering the Park government’s cover up through the MMAF. 6 The families push for an amendment to the Sewol Special Law allowing full investigative authority, a special prosecutor and recovery of the Sewol ferry. Rather than answering questions, the investigation raises many more: Why is there missing information about the position of the Sewol? Why is there missing audio communication with the Sewol?  How/why did the Sewol captain get permission to depart Incheon Port despite inadequate documentation? Why was the National Intelligence Service so involved with the Sewol before the crash even being the body responsible for the Sewol?

The families continue protesting and taking to the streets and carrying out occupations to pass amendments to the Sewol Special Law. Despite winning the majority of the National Assembly, the opposition parties are unable to pass such amendments. At the end of September 2016, the Special Committee’s mandate comes to an end. Its members continue unofficially processing the information gathered during the investigation and serving as a transition to a future Special Committee under the next administration.

Raised by a sea of candles
While the heart and soul of the Sewol struggle are the families, its strength is the people. From those close to the families such as “Crying Uncle” – a taxi driver that drives the families hundreds of miles to and from Jindo when bodies are recovered – the dozens that every day assemble ribbons in Gwanghwamun while remembering the Sewol to the hundreds of thousands that collected signatures and marched alongside them, to the millions that cried when the Sewol sank. As Executive Director of the 416 Sewol Families for Truth and a Safer Society Yoo Gyoung-geun explains, “They [the people] stuck it out with us from beginning to end. They were around us. When we were having a hard time, they cheered us on…Even when we are having too hard of a time to come out, they came out instead. So we get the strength to continue. We can’t quit.” As the Choi Soon-sil scandal rocked the Park presidency. The families renewed their efforts for a new government. Even as others were calling for her resignation, the families were the first to call for her impeachment, incarceration and investigation to her missing seven hours. On December 3 of 2016, 963 days after their first attempt, floating on a sea of candles, the families finally march to 100 meters of the Blue House. On March 10, the Constitutional Court rules to remove President Park from office. On March 23, the Sewol finally emerges from the bottom of the ocean. On May 9, a presidential election will take place with all polls indicating a change in government and the victory of a candidate that promised a second Special Investigative Committee. 7

The struggle for a safe society
As the families met, cried, hugged, and struggled together with the public, their struggle transformed from an individual to a social struggle. Yoo recounts a transformative moment while fasting and occupying the front steps of the National Assembly in 2014:

“I was sitting in front of the National Assembly on my tenth day of fasting, some people came and sought us out. It was my first time meeting them, but they came up to me, grabbed my hand and started crying. ‘We are so sorry, we are so sorry.’ Who are these people to be apologizing to me? They introduced themselves as the parents of children that had died at the Taean Marine Camp Accident. The children drowned at sea while partaking in this experiential camp because of a mistake by an assistant instructor. These were those families. ‘But why are you apologizing to me?’ I asked. ‘If we hadn’t given up, and if we had fought to pass a special law and revealed the truth? If we had fought until the very end, then the Sewol would not have happened. But we didn’t fight until the end, we just settled and we stopped fighting. We should have kept fighting.’ He’s saying all this while sobbing. So then, I started recollecting all those instances where I just simply ignored or did nothing.”

On Jan. 25 of 2015, the 416 Sewol Victims/Missing/Survivor’s Family Task Force Committee becomes the 416 Sewol Families for Truth and a Safer Society fighting not just simply for the truth and justice of the Sewol, but to make a society that values people’s lives and safety over money. Once they build that safe society, maybe they can find peace that their children’s death was not senseless. Yoo recounts conversations between the parents, “As fathers and mothers that could not safeguard them at that last moment, we want to simply go to them [the children]. But we can’t go, until we finish. Once we finish, I think we will really want to go then. Amongst ourselves we say this. We want to go right now, but if we went now, would they take us in? They wouldn’t even look at us. We have to do all of this, then might they not receive us? So let’s do this, so we can go to our children.”


Nov. 15, police block the march from entering. The families of the Sewol are at the front of the march. (


Dec. 3, the tide shifts. The families of the Sewol leading the march, the protests finally make it to the legally allowed 100 meters in front of the Blue House. It was 963 days after their first attempt. (


Families cry at hearing the verdict removing President Park from office. (


The Sewol emerges. (


A volunteer at the Yellow Ribbon Factory in Gwanghwamun gluing ribbons.


The author (right) “Crying Uncle” (left) going through the calendar in one of the Sewol classrooms at the Classroom of Remembrance.  December 31 is marked “3rd year for real now” along with tear marks for the year ahead cramming for the college entrance exam.


On the side of Crying Uncle’s taxi


A complete timeline of the Sewol struggle can be found (in Korean) at:


  1. Before starting their third and most difficult year in high school when they have to cram for the college entrance examination, second year high school students embark on a three day two night trip many of them to Jeju Island. 
  2. Three of the members are appointed by the families, five by the opposition parties, five by the ruling party, and two each by the Supreme Court and the President of the Korean Bar. 
  3. The President of the Saenuri Party (Park’s party) accuses the Special Committee of over budgeting and wasting tax money. All the major media pick up the story. He bases his charge on a budget proposal leaked by the vice-Chair of the Committee (a ruling party appointee). The document later turns out to have been produced by the appointed committee members without consultation or approval from the rest of the committee. 
  4. 42 out of the 90 would be government employees. 
  5. 250 of the 304 of the victims were 2nd year students from Danwon High School in Ansan. Thus, Ansan has become one of the epicenters of the Sewol struggle as well as the site of their altar. 
  6. It’s revealed that the Blue House mandated the MMAF to impede the investigation on Nov. 19, 2015. 
  7. Presidential candidate Moon Jae-in of the Together Democratic party has consistently maintained his 40 percentage lead, with the next runner-up trailing over 20 percent. He has promised to immediately starting a second Special Committee to investigate the truth as soon as his administration takes office.