On April 16 a ferry named the Sewol sank off South Korea’s southwestern coast, leaving 294 dead and 10 still missing as of Wednesday. More than 240 of the dead and missing victims were students and teachers from Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province.
Thursday marks the 100th day since the massive tragedy struck the nation, but the emotional wounds remain untreated and the political and economic aftershocks are still reverberating.
The Korean government came under a firestorm of criticism for failing miserably in the rescue operations for the sunken ferry.
In response, government officials said “the 4/16 disaster” would begin a new era here, as was the case after 9/11 in the U.S.
Taking lessons from the Sewol disaster, the nation must and would change, they said.
Lawmakers and President Park Geun-hye subsequently vowed to overhaul the nation’s safety regulations including plans to dismantle the Coast Guard, the country’s first-responders in maritime accidents.
They also promised to end cozy, and often corrupt, relations between the government and private companies ― a custom that indirectly contributed to the disaster by preventing thorough safety inspections on the Sewol before the sinking, according to parliamentary and prosecutorial investigations.
Families of the victims of the Arpil 16 Sewol ferry disaster begin their march calling for the introduction of the “special Sewol bill” at the joint alter in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, Wednesday. (Lee Gil-dong/The Korea Herald)
Local media went so far as to coin a word, “gwanpia,” referring to the network of corruption between bureaucrats and the private sector.
But 100 days since the maritime disaster partisan stand-offs have stalled parliamentary investigations, special bills and government reform plans.
The much-disputed “special Sewol bill” was designed to authorize an inquiry panel to determine the causes of the Sewol sinking. The proposal is a parliament-initiated reform attempting to “overhaul” the nation. But party divisions have prevented the bill’s passage.
Opposition parties claim the panel will need prosecutorial powers to investigate the accident. The ruling Saenuri Party, on the other hand, argued that giving prosecutorial powers to a parliamentary panel would go against current criminal laws that authorize only state prosecutors to conduct such investigations.
Those with prosecutorial powers hold much authority including the right to apply for search warrants.
Meanwhile, other safety-related disasters have continued to hit the country.
Two trains collided in Gangwon Province, killing one and severely injuring three on Tuesday evening. More than 80 others were left with minor injuries from the crash.
Last week, a rescue helicopter crashed, killing five firefighters. They were returning to base after conducting a salvage operation to search for the 10 still missing from the accident.
The firefighters had frantically tried to avoid killing others as their helicopter exploded in downtown Gwangju.
Media reports hailed the deceased firefighters. An editorial called them real heroes who stood in stark contrast to the 15 crew members of the Sewol.
The 15 sailors are now standing trial for abandoning the ship on April 16 while telling passengers, most of whom are now dead or missing, to stay in their rooms on the ill-fated ferry.
Prosecutors have deemed the 15 crew members and regulators who were supposed to monitor and prevent such disasters as the primary culprits of the calamity. Close to 140 have been arrested in relation to the Sewol accident.
The families of the Sewol ferry victims on Wednesday began a march to the National Assembly in a show of dissatisfaction with what the prosecution has done so far. They will march from Ansan to the National Assembly in Seoul, arriving on Thursday. The march comes after the families started a hunger strike on July 12.
They said the special Sewol bill and the envisioned panel are the only means to reveal the “real causes” of the disaster. They speculate that there might be more government officials who should be held responsible.
The government, political parties and other organizations offered compensation, but the bereaved said they would forego reparation payments from the state and other benefits.
What they really want, 100 days after the Sewol sank and so many innocent passengers perished helplessly in the middle of the sea, is not compensation but the truth.
By Jeong Hunny (firstname.lastname@example.org)