By Kyle Barr
As children capered through the jets of water in Seoul’s central plaza, Jin Soo Kim did his best to yell over their delight. This protest volunteer demanded that the park’s visitors step away from the tranquility of a dry, warm afternoon and help petition the government to atone for the failed rescue attempt of the Sewol ferry, an accident that claimed more than 300 lives, most of which were children not much older than those whole played.
“I’m here to help reveal the truth in this disaster,” Kim said.
Kim faces an uphill battle. Like the plaza’s water jets, the ferry protesters here have become a park fixture. They operate out of a tent that serve as a makeshift shrine for the drowned children of the Sewol disaster. It features individual photos of the children who drowned and visitors are invited to mourn. But few do.
Still, two years after the disaster, many Koreans question why the Sewol sank. The Sewol, a 6,825 ton ferry, was enroute to Jeju Island, on the southern end of Korea, from the port city of Incheon. It was carrying carrying 476 passengers, including a large number of young students from Danwon High School. The ferry capsized 1.7 miles off the southwest coast. Three hundred and four people died in the disaster, and of the 172 survivors, more than half were rescued by private fishing boats rather than government coast guard vessels.
“The government did not do anything to save them,” said protest volunteer Suchang Kim. “Corruption happened here.”
No investigation has revealed why the ship was allowed to leave port so heavily overloaded. Protesters believe the government has thwarted any thorough independent investigation because the ferry was also carrying building materials meant for naval bases on Jeju Island.
Soon after the disaster, families began protesting the government’s response to the disaster. It included sit ins, marches and hunger strikes. Today, that protest continues with the tent in Gwanghwamun Square, which sits outside the entrance to the seat of national government in central Seoul. The protesters lack permits to occupy the square but the government has been reluctant to act against them.
The protesters accuse the government of interfering with the independence of the investigation of the accident and want a complete criminal investigation that includes looking into an alleged cover upon by the Blue House, South Korea’s head executive office. They also demand that the remaining 10 bodies of victims and the wreck of the Sewol will be recovered along with a complete examination of the ship’s remains.
For over two years, Seoul citizens have seen the yellow ribbon, and for two years that yellow ribbon has divided opinion, and as time moves on, interest in the protests wanes. Worse, is that reaction to the disaster has been divided on political lines. The left believe the government has to answer for the disaster and the lives lost, while the right believe the protesters are abusing their situation and that they are being unpatriotic. In late fall of 2014, protesters staged a hunger strike. In a counter protest, another group called Ilbe ate pizza, fried chicken and kimbap directly in front of them. On the anniversary of the Sewol disaster last year, the protests grew violent, and the police used water cannons and pepper spray to disperse the crowd.
The protests in 2016 have been comparatively peaceful, and volunteers continue to return year after year. Leader of the play theater group Chero, Hong Myoungeui, works with a group called Playback Theater, a group who also appeared for last year’s demonstrations. She brought the families of the deceased students to help them live out the happiest memories they had of their children. There under the heat, the group practice, while Myongeui steps in every few seconds, telling them what to do next and what they’re doing wrong.
“We want to promote support for the families of the Sewol victims,” she said. “The president wants to stop the investigation as soon as possible.”
South Korea’s president Geun-hye Park was heavily criticized by her apparent disappearance for hours after the Sewol disaster, for the failed rescue effort and what her critics have called a lackluster investigation into the Sewol disaster.
Details of the Sewol were sparse as the event was first being reported. Protesters remember how some news outlets reported all the passengers were rescued as the ship continued to sink while many people were still inside, huddled in life jackets. It was later revealed that the captain and crew fled off the sinking ship on one of the few coast guard ships come to the rescue. The captain and crew were sentenced to jail in 2014. Later it was revealed the ship was far overloaded beyond its mandatory limit, and that the crew had drained thousands of tons of ballast water meant to keep the ship balanced.
Across from Gwanghwamun Square in front of the Seoul Government Complex that includes the office of the prime minister and ministries of education and unification, among others. the protesters, most of them families of the victims, had staged a sit-in. They had already been there a week to protest the administration’s investigation into the Sewol disaster which ended on June 30. They said the investigation was not adequately funded until halfway through it’s 9 month tenure, and that it did not do enough to uncover the cause of the crash or why the ferry was so overloaded.
“We feel they only did 30 percent of the investigation,” said volunteer Misun Cho.
Cho has three children, all girls, one 16-year-old, one university aged, and another in middle school, the same as the victims of the disaster. She became a volunteer after seeing the tragedy unfold on television, imagining if what she saw was her own children.
“This was a man made tragedy, not a natural tragedy,” she said.
The families of the victims pile into the shade under the walls of the Seoul Government Complex. They group together, some sit on blankets and eat from small bags of tomatoes or from packages of gimbap. Off to the side, another group is singing, one man plays the guitar. The sound is like a lament. After two years of constant protest, for the families of the victims, it’s all they can do.