On April 16, 2014, the Sewol ferry, which was sailing from Incheon to Jeju, sank. The ferry went down at around 8:50 a.m., when Koreans were on their way to work and school. The news shocked the nation, but at first, went back to their daily lives with a sense of relief: The media reported breaking news that all passengers on the ship had been rescued. However, it soon became clear that was false. That day was a disastrous one for Koreans as they careened through complex emotions while scanning the news: astonishment, relief, shock, and sadness.
The Coast Guard and civilian divers alike mobilized for a rescue effort, but they missed the golden time. While many passengers in the slowly sinking ship suffered in the rising water, the public had no choice but to pray and watch. According to news reports, private fishing boats ended up rescuing more passengers than the Coast Guard at the scene, leading many Koreans to question the agency’s efforts.
The final death toll reveals a tragedy: 304 of the 476 passengers were killed; five of the bodies were never recovered. Of the 299 deaths, 250 were second-year high school students. Like so many other students, they went on a school trip to Jeju Island, the most beautiful place in South Korea, in the blue spring of April. They failed to return home.
The sunken ferry was not raised to the surface until March 23, 2017. It took about three years for the government to decide how best to pull the ship out of the water. By that time, some parts of the hull were rusted, and many parts were no longer recognizable. Tears flowed from the eyes of the bereaved family members watching the ship be lifted and moved to the cradle. Their grief and wounds were incurable.
It soon became clear that the tragedy was compounded by a failure of leadership. Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president at that time, did not appear in public for about seven hours after the ship’s sinking was reported. Park stayed in her bedroom all that time without moving to her office, although she was briefed by the head of the National Security Office on the accident in the morning, according to news reports. Meanwhile, the head of the control tower, which needs to deal with disasters quickly, did not faithfully take part in protecting the lives and safety of the people. During that time, the Coast Guard and the government’s response was unacceptably insufficient.
On the ferry itself, the captain escaped first without helping the passengers escape. Meanwhile, passengers who were told to stay on the sinking ship waited patiently for rescue that never came. Believing what the authorities told them turned out to be a fatal mistake.
Seven years have passed since then. Some of those directly involved in the disaster, including the captain, were sentenced to prison, but the bereaved families say they have not yet fully uncovered the cause and truth of the disaster. A particular point of contention is that no one in charge of either the Coast Guard or the control tower was held accountable for the failed disaster response. In January of this year, the prosecution’s special investigation team concluded that there were no grounds for charges of negligence against the Coast Guard.
Meanwhile, there are still questions about why the ship sank, and why passengers were not rescued. The bereaved families have consistently raised the same questions since the ship sank. What was the president doing that day while the disaster unfolded? If the ship sank because of a sharp turn, why did the crew make a sharp turn in the first place?
The bereaved families judged that they would not be able to hear the answers to these questions until the Park regime was replaced in 2017. But they hoped to receive closure under new President Moon Jae-in, who had been the main opposition party’s leader and had joined them in asking the same questions. But with under a year remaining in Moon’s term, the families are still having to take to the streets to demand answers.
Yoo Kyung-geun, the head of Sewol Victims’ Families Committee, told The Diplomat that victims’ families are asking basic questions but still have not heard from the government, politicians, and prosecutors.
“If the reason why the ship sank is because of a sharp turn, we should know why a navigator made a sharp turn in that situation, but we still have no answer about it,” Yoo said.
For the past seven years, no one has been able to properly identify the cause of the Sewol ferry’s sinking. Various investigative committees tried to answer the question, but failed to reach a single clear conclusion.
Other questions remain as well. “It has been revealed since 2014 through investigations and trials that the Coast Guard has not attempted or taken steps to rescue passengers. So the question we asked is why the Coast Guard didn’t do anything,” Yoo said.
For seven years, investigations by the special investigation committee and the prosecution revealed many facts about the disaster, but no investigation was conducted into why the Coast Guard did not mount a substantial response.
To this day, no one knows what National Intelligence Service and presidential Blue House did on the day of the disaster. That’s because Hwang Kyo-ahn, Park’s former prime minister, designated records of Park’s activities on the day of the disaster as the presidential record when he became acting president after Park was impeached. That means the public – included the bereaved families – cannot access those records for up to 30 years.
A lawyer, Song Ki-ho, filed a lawsuit in June 2017 for access to the records. The first trial ruled that the records should be accessible, but the decision was reversed on appeal, and the bereaved families have yet to access the records. The Supreme Court’s ruling will be the final word, but the top court has not yet issued a decision more than two years since the end of the second trial.
“It is clear and important to know what Blue House did on the day, but the prosecution did not even tackle this part in the investigation,” Yoo said. Yoo also added that they cannot rule out the possibility that Blue House officials destroyed the records at that time.
While the bereaved families have been demanding the government to reveal the truth for seven years, some have disparaged their efforts, saying the family members are seeking monetary compensation. The prosecution’s special investigation team said in a briefing that the Defense Security Command and the National Intelligence Service had written a report about the bereaved families.
Government agencies sought to disparage and distort the needs of the bereaved families, and even began investigating them starting from the day after the disaster. It was also confirmed that the government tried to manipulate public opinion by using extreme right-wing internet users, websites, and organizations. In other words, instead of trying to responsibly handle the disaster, government agencies and the Blue House at the time targeted the grieving families for a smear campaign. The bereaved families had to constantly face accusations that all their demands were aimed at making money.
“In the early days, we couldn’t understand the reaction. But since the reason has been revealed, we’ve been able to see why we had to go through that,” Yoo said
However, Yoo says the government-made framing is still prevalent in society. It is still painful for him to hear the disaster dismissed as just a “marine traffic accident.”
In the meantime, many laws have been passed creating conditions to shed light on the disaster. However, the results from the government and investigative agencies not touched on the deepest issues. After seven years of investigations and inconclusive findings, many Koreans are tired and the bereaved families are sorry for that.
“It’s our position that the Moon administration should find out the truth and solve all the fact-finding tasks that require legal punishment and responsibility,” Yoo said. He added that the bereaved families hope the Moon administration does not pass on its responsibility to reveal the truth of the disaster to the next government.