Why Sewol Families Still Fight

In depth

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They have been denied.

First, they were denied access to truthful information. Then they were denied physical access to the National Assembly and the Blue House. In the end, they were denied justice and basic human dignity. They have been rendered invisible, and their voices, mute.

“They have been grieving too long”.

“They mourn shamelessly, like uncivilized beasts”.

“Their grief is hurting the national morale and economy”.

“Enough already. It’s time to move on”.

I have been following the unfolding of the Sewol ferry disaster from the very beginning, and these are some of the words I have personally heard being spoken about the bereaved families. And I will say this once and for all: Any expectation I had for South Korea as a modern democratic state disappeared from my mind after seeing how this government handles the ferry disaster and treats the victims’ families and survivors.

Just one year ago, the entire nation was praying for the safe return of the passengers trapped inside the capsized ferry, and later grieving the deaths of 304 victims, 250 of them high school students on a school field trip.

We now know with some certainty how and why the ship capsized and sank on that fateful day. But questions still remain, especially regarding the government’s fumbled rescue efforts.

One errors after another turned the accident into a tragedy of incomprehensible magnitude. Evidence now shows that there was enough time to alert and evacuate all the passengers as the ship listed. But the Coast Guard manipulated the initial report to cover up their fatal mistakes. The line of command during rescue efforts was clearly dysfunctional, and President Park Geun-hye’s whereabouts during the crucial 7 hours on the day are still unaccounted for.

Out of 325 students onboard, only 75 escaped the ferry. It didn’t take long for all missing passengers’ families to become families of the deceased.

Since then, the bereaved families’ demand has been consistent: the truth. They fought hard throughout last year for a special law, which would enable an independent commission to investigate fully and transparently the government’s handling of the disaster. The law, however, became stuck in a political gridlock as the Blue House  and the ruling party turned a blind eye, emboldened after winning the by-election in July by a landslide. The law was  passed only in November, 200 days after the sinking, but in a way that granted the commission a much reduced mandate compared to what the families felt was necessary for uncovering the truth.

While it is only appropriate that an impartial investigation take place and the families be given proper compensation, rumors have spread that these parents are only after money and privileges. Some conservatives callously call them “profiteers of coffins” and “commies”, and their contempt has turned into hatred, sometimes expressed in the most horrifying way. Kim Young-oh, a Sewol student victim’s father that I have befriended, went on a fasting for 46 days in order to generate support for  the independent commission, but far-right activists staged a binge fest near his tent in downtown Seoul to mock him and other Sewol supporters. His personal life was ruthlessly dissected, and he was forced to prove his love for the late daughter and fitness as a father even as he neared the brink of death. His struggle is dramatic, but it is illustrative of what the bereaved families have gone through after the sinking of the ferry.

As novelist Kim Hoon put it in his emotionally charged essay, the South Korean state and its ruling class have determinedly turned its eyes away from the victims and dismissed the bereaved families as seeking only to benefit from their misfortune. “Sewol” has become a taboo word, and the bereaved families, South Korea’s untouchables. Once ordinary parents and citizens, they have had their lives turned upside-down, and their Post-traumatic stress disorder aggravated by what they call the government’s inaction and foul play.

Many bereaved parents question the government’s willingness to assist with the probe and hold itself accountable, and have quit their jobs to seek answers about the circumstances of their children’s deaths. On top of psychological trauma inflicted by their children’s deaths, they are enduring economic hardship and worsening public opinion. Here again, the government has chosen not to offer proper mental and financial care. Instead, it recently outraged the families by imposing a clause of automatic legal reconciliation on anyone who receives compensation or subsidy.

In short, the Sewol families have been disowned by their own government. The degree of neglect and breach of social contract they suffer borders on a human rights crisis.

I once noted that the entire country of South Korea is like the Sewol ferry: fancy appearance built on layers of corruption, cover-ups, strong resistance to reform, and lack of transparency. 16 April 2015 marks the one-year anniversary of the sinking, but even after a tragedy of this scope and scale, South Korea has been quick to revert to its old habits. There have been numerous preventable large-scale accidents even after the ferry disaster. Reports show that safety regulations and conditions have not been properly implemented or monitored.

I have been working closely with the Sewol families, observing and documenting their saga. They are just ordinary people, kind and warm-hearted. But their han — that profound angst at the core of one’s being — is very real and powerful. There is a strong sense of community and solidarity among the bereaved families. They have become a big family of their own and stand united despite differences in opinion and desire. They have been incredibly patient, resilient, and supportive toward one another, and I admire their nobility. Even though they would very much like to return to their normal lives, they will not give up their fight just yet. Because they are parents, and there is nothing parents won’t do for their children, especially when the lives of the latter are put to a sudden and painful end under inexplicable circumstances. And because they believe truth and justice have not been properly served. I hope their struggle will bear fruit and they will find their peace of mind soon. I also hope that they will get properly compensated for all the injustice and indignity that they have experienced.

Today is the Sewol ferry disaster’s one year anniversary, but President Park Geun-hye is leaving for a tour of Latin America after a short visit to the site of the sinking. No minister or member of the ruling party will attend the bereaved families’ commemoration service. Much has been said and done since 16 April 2014, but in reality, South Korea has not taken a single step forward.

Jun Michael Park is a freelance photographer and writer from Seoul, Korea.