On April 6th, 2014, a ferry of 426 passengers capsized on its trip from Incheon to Jeju island. This marks the Sewol Ferry incident that ceaselessly continues to haunt the nation after more than 2 and a half years. Recently, it is especially garnering more attention in the context of the Park Geun-hye scandal. What makes it so significant, how is it still relevant, and most importantly, why shouldn’t we forget?
For those who are unaware of the details of the original incident, the following is a summary of the facts. On the ferry were 325 students from Danwon high school, taking their annual school trip, along with 14 teachers, other passengers and crew members. When the ferry crashed that morning and began to tilt 45 degrees, the ferry notified the police. For around two hours, it was broadcasted within the boat that the passengers should stay put, emphasizing for the students not to come out to the deck, in a situation where they should have been escaping the boat for rescue. In the end, the captain escaped and survived, along with students and passengers that managed to exit the boat. Those who obeyed the broadcast make up the 295 irretrievable victims. A nationwide broadcast soon after the incident reported that all were rescued, and parents miles away sighed in relief; only to be notified a few hours later that this was far from the truth.
If the incident was simply a tragic accident, why is it still an issue today? While it was reported that the government made rescue attempts to the best of its ability, no one who was trapped in the boat was successfully rescued. There is definitely much room for suspicion. The parents were refused the ride to approach the scene during the rescue operations, and eventually paid for a boat to see the scene for themselves. An interview with a mother revealed that civilian rescuers were stopped from helping out until the parents and the rescuers put up a fierce argument. It was reported on television that the government had allowed it from the beginning.
The 3 media giants of Korea (SBS, KBS, MBC) broadcasted with a positive outlook, much inconsistent with what the actual scene was like: frantic, unorganized, and disheartening. While the nation was told that rescue teams had advanced to the ship’s dining hall, they had not even actually entered the boat; the media claimed that air was being pumped in, when the pumping equipment had not even arrived on scene.
“I was watching a live video of the scene and TV reports at the same time when I realized that all the important parts were missing from TV. Sometimes, I would see the news blatantly contradict what I was seeing with my own eyes. That’s when I realized something wasn’t right.” -Korean blogger
Rescue specialists from the navy and the Seoul City Rescue Team, equipped with years of experience and cutting-edge technology, were refused entry to the scene. The police continued to curiously turn down and block offers of help by other parties, while making multiple blunders and showing extreme inefficiency. Multiple eyewitnesses testified that contrary to the media’s reports of grand rescue operations, nothing was actually happening. President Park’s claim was that “the government is utilizing all resources and manpower possible for the search and rescue”, while parents cried foul: “no one is doing anything. Anything! Are we standing around so we can take out the dead bodies?” No one knew who was in charge, and no one would answer the parents’ questions. Besides the few mentioned, there are innumerable points of suspicion. There are too many to list in a single article, but all of them point to a single allegation: it wasn’t that they couldn’t rescue the passengers. It was that they wouldn’t.
“Everything going on the TV right now is a lie. They’re all lies. What’s the use of news reports when they’re all lies?” -Parent interviewed on scene
A mysterious lack of transparency and communication is what is keeping the issue above the water. To this day, parents continue to gather in front of the Sejong statue at Gwanghwamun in a vehement cry for the government to investigate who is to blame and what actually happened.
The main point of inquiry that links the issue to president Park is that no one knows what she was doing for 7 critical hours when the incident first occurred. As the president, it was her most basic duty to be on the job, being alert and putting her full attention into commanding the urgent situation. It was recently revealed that Park spent 90 minutes of that time getting her hair styled, galvanizing even more fury among citizens, and the government still refuses to disclose Park’s whereabouts for the remainder of the 7 hours. Strong allegations include one that claims Park was meeting a shamanist during the time, and another that claims Park was undergoing plastic surgery, each theory backed with a collection of inconclusive evidence. While the truth is still unclear, an undeniable fact is that Park’s actions that day are being concealed by the government.
This is why the Sewol Ferry issue has a significant place in the tsunami of protests against Park’s presidency. During the most recent weekly protest, Saturday, December 3rd, a Sewol victim’s parent gave a speech calling for the truth, moving many to tears. She appealed that “the last name my Eun-hwa called for was probably ‘mother’. Sewol Ferry is still underwater, and so are the 9 unrecovered children. They want to come back to their families.” Our nation’s ranking in media freedom has, since the Sewol incident, dropped to the 30th place out of 34 OECD countries. The ship is still under the surface, and so is the truth. We refuse to forget until it is brought into the light.
-Jisoo Hope Yoon (’19)
Cover Illustration: Hannah Kim (’19)
- http://m.blog.naver.com/feelmefirst/150189113826 (suggested further read for in-depth understanding)