The first anniversary of the Sewol disaster culminated in violent clashes between surviving families and police on Thursday, as the fallout from one of South Korea’s worst peacetime disasters showed little sign of abating.
Police in Seoul used pepper spray on mourners angry at being prevented from laying flowers at a makeshift altar for the victims of last year’s ferry sinking, reported Agence France-Presse. The violence followed a mass rally for the 304 victims at Seoul City Hall.
Yoo Seong-ae, a journalist at OhmyNews who witnessed Thursday’s clashes, told The Diplomat that one grieving family member suffered several broken ribs and that a policeman was brought to hospital after fainting.
“Even people who had finished with the memorial service and were trying to take public transport home were blocked [by police], so a lot of people could be seen protesting,” she said, calling the use of tear gas and other police measures “excessive.”
Many relatives of the victims remain furious at the government over its response to the initial sinking as well as its subsequent handling of the fallout. They are especially angry at what they see as attempts by the administration of President Park Geun-hye to meddle in an independent inquiry into the disaster. The government recently attempted to appoint public officials to key posts on the investigative committee.
The families say an independent inquiry is essential to determine the full circumstances of the disaster and to prevent similar accidents in a country whose modern history is littered with man-made catastrophes.
Earlier in the day, families of the victims boycotted a memorial service attended by the president on the southern island of Jindo. While Park vowed to salvage the ship, a key demand of the families, she attracted further criticism for departing the country later in the day for a week-long tour of Latin America.
The negative scrutiny comes as Park’s approval ratings have been languishing below 40 percent.
Dr. Se-woong Koo, editor-in-chief of the social commentary website Korea Exposé, said the negative fallout for the government is likely to continue.
“It’s clear that the current administration has lost all credibility in its role as the self-appointed champion of the people after its performance on the Sewol issue,” said Koo. “What little the government might care to say about caring for citizens now rings hollow in the ears of the public.”