Negotiations over the so-called “special Sewol bill” continued Monday at the National Assembly after strong public opinion compelled the main opposition party to nullify an earlier bipartisan agreement on the legislation.
Party leaders last week reached a breakthrough in negotiations over the bill. Ruling Saenuri Party Rep. Lee Wan-koo and New Politics Alliance for Democracy Rep. Park Young-sun subsequently agreed to pass the bill at a full parliamentary session Wednesday.
But after the deal sparked vociferous public criticism over key details of the bill, Park opened renegotiations with Lee earlier Monday.
No new agreement was reached. Negotiations will resume Tuesday.
The special Sewol bill aims to create an inquiry panel that will determine why the 6,800-ton ferry sank in the West Sea in April, leaving 304 dead or missing. The panel will consist of lawmakers and outside experts.
Disagreement on whether to give the inquiry panel prosecutorial powers has prevented the bill from being legislated for weeks. Lawmakers and President Park Geun-hye had originally promised to pass the bill by July 16.
Saenuri lawmakers have balked at the idea of giving the inquiry panel prosecutorial powers. Giving such overreaching powers to authorities other than state prosecutors would set a dangerous precedent, they say. Prosecutorial powers refer to special legal prerogatives such as the right to ask courts for search warrants or detain suspects.
Opposition officials and bereaved families, however, say that the panel will be unable to reveal the root causes of the disaster without such powers.
Last week’s compromise between Park and Lee did not give the inquiry panel legal powers, sparking victims’ families, civic activists and some opposition lawmakers to demand a nullification of the deal.
Hundreds of celebrities, including singer Kim Jang-hoon and film director Chung Ji-young have joined the victims’ families in a hunger strike, increasing public attention over the embattled bill.
The bereaved families have been conducting a hunger strike in front of the National Assembly and at Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul since July 14.
Earlier Monday, filmmakers, scholars and lawyers signed a petition calling on lawmakers to form an inquiry panel armed with prosecutorial powers.
“Why, why, why, is our request that everyone know what happened on April 16 (the day the Sewol sank) an unreasonable one?” the petition read.
A Gallup Korea poll conducted late last month showed public opinion in support of giving the inquiry panel prosecutorial powers.
About 53 percent of those surveyed approved giving panel members prosecutorial rights. The same survey also showed 64 percent saying that the causes of the April ferry disaster have not yet been entirely uncovered. More than 65 percent also said earlier investigations into the Sewol accident by law enforcement officials could not be trusted.
By Jeong Hunny (firstname.lastname@example.org)