A bill to reinvestigate the Sewol ferry sinking will be put to a vote this week. It was authored by Rep. Park Ju-min of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, who was a lawyer for the families of those who died in the accident. The bill was fast tracked on Dec. 26 last year so it will automatically be submitted to the plenary session of the National Assembly on Friday.
If the bill is passed, a special committee will be created to investigate the tragedy again for a maximum of three years.
The goal of the bill is to reinvestigate not only the ferry accident, but also the deaths linked to toxic chemicals used to sterilize humidifiers and to draw up preventive measures. But in the Sewol case, it is questionable if the reinvestigation has any merit. Related issues have been already settled to the extent that a reinvestigation would be redundant.
A special committee inquired into the ferry sinking from Jan. 1, 2015 to Sept. 30, 2016. The prosecution and the special counsel investigated related suspicions. Those involved were punished and the bereaved families were compensated. Then President Park Geun-hye was impeached and is currently in jail while standing trial. Is there still more to investigate?
On Saturday, the families of the last five unaccounted-for Sewol passengers left Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, where they had waited for the remains of missing loved ones to be found. The search continued in the salvaged hull on the dock at the port and around the seabed spot where the ship sank. Their decision to stop waiting and bid a final farewell to their dead loved ones came 1,313 days after the ferry sank on April 16, 2014.
Two days earlier, they told a press conference that they had decided to accept the deaths of the missing, though it was very hard to do so.
“We concluded that it is unfair to demand the continuation of the search,” they said. “A huge amount of taxpayers’ money has been spent on the search. We feel sorry to the nation for that.”
About 100 divers have been hurt and two lost their lives as they searched the ship under the sea. Later, it was salvaged at a cost of more than 100 billion won ($91.3 million). The accident is estimated to have cost the nation about 600 billion won, including compensation to the bereaved families.
The five families must have been heartbroken when they decided to stop waiting for the remains of their loved ones to be found and give up demanding that the search be continued.
The decision was made because “this situation can be settled only by the families of those unaccounted for,” as they said.
Without their decision, the difficult and dangerous underwater search could not help but continue indefinitely.
Measures to prevent future accidents must be put in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again. But whether the mishap should be inquired into again, even though its causes have been identified and those responsible have been punished, is something to think about.
On the day when the five families held a joint farewell ceremony for their loved ones and left the port, other families of the deceased in the Sewol accident held a rally in Seoul, demanding the passage of the bill. They joined other civic groups and marched together to the building of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, which is against the bill. They demanded the party disband and threw garbage toward the building in protest.
What is worrisome regarding a possible reinvestigation is that unrelated groups will likely take advantage of the Sewol victims’ families to cause conflict or meet their goals.
About half a year has passed since the new government was elected.
The families of the last five passengers whose remains have not yet been found made the difficult decision to not demand a further search. Now is the time for the entire nation to get over the pain of the past and move on together.