It has been almost three years since the Sewol Ferry sank 1.5km off the coast of South Korea. Out of 476 passengers on board, most of them high school students, more than 300 people died. The incident has since been dubbed the “Sewol Tragedy.”
Early in 2016, plans to resurface the ship were publicized and last Thursday, on March 23 at 3:45am, the first signs of Sewol’s remains broke the surface of the water.
Since April 2014, when the sinking took place, the Sewol Ferry tragedy has developed from an unfortunate tragedy to grounds for nationwide dissent and emotional turmoil. The incident was, at first, a reason for national mourning. Very quickly, however, it became an all-too-tangible symbol of both the consequences of disregarding protocol and the corruption that pervades South Korea.
As investigations into the circumstances developed, what was originally believed to be an inevitable catastrophe was revealed to be caused by a blatant disregard for safety regulations: the ferry was illegally redesigned, overloaded with cargo, and under the control of an inexperienced and incapable crew — all factors that were made possible through a questionable relationship between ship proprietors and state administrators.
Testimonies from surviving passengers and phone calls from the victims on board the ship before the sinking revealed that crew members repeatedly told passengers to stay in their rooms and not evacuate the ferry. As it became clear that the ship was going under, the captain and crew abandoned the vessel, leaving the majority of its passengers unable to escape.
As the Sewol sank, government officials did little, if anything at all, to aid the situation. President Park was nowhere to be found during the crisis, and her baffling absence during the accident, infamously referred to as “the 7 missing hours,” generated outrage amongst South Koreans. Her approval ratings dropped from 60.1% to 46.7% in the two months following the incident and even recently, her incompetence during the Seowl tragedy contributed to her impeachment from public office.
The haste and disregard of safety that catalyzed South Korea’s miraculous recovery in the aftermath of the Korean War was once again revealing its consequences. In 1995 a department store collapsed killing over 500 people due to a disregard to safety regulations. And in 2014, the same indifference to protocol led to the death of hundreds in the sinking of Sewol. The nation’s fierce commitment to shortcuts and fast, albeit risky, methods had once more forced its people to deal with irreversible ramifications.
Since 2014, the families of the victims of the tragedy have partaken in years of vigils and protests to demand investigation into the circumstances of the accident and an official apology from negligent crew members and government officials.
Since April 2014, 295 bodies were recovered but nine are still believed to be on board the ruins of the vessel. The resurfacing of the 6,825-tonne ship, which was estimated to cost around $73m to execute, is an attempt to recover the remaining nine bodies.
Lee Geum-hee, the mother of one of the missing students, is quoted as saying at the site of the resurfacing, “We just want one thing — for the ship to be pulled up so that we can take our children home.”
Though this salvation attempt may seem to have a rather hefty monetary cost, its significance and importance isn’t limited to solely recovering the missing bodies. Just like in the recent impeachment of President Park, the ship’s resurfacing is more a symbolic gesture than a physical one. To South Koreans, it is a manifestation of the idea that the voice of the people, of those left to deal with the consequences of government negligence and corruption, is finally being heard.
It is a sign that the South Korean government is beginning to take some sort of responsibility for its years of disregard towards proper protocol and safety measures, its countless coverups, its long history of incompetence and negligence, and this is something that has the potential to bring about a new era of democracy in South Korea.
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