This article is largely based on a recent series dedicated to the Sewol Tragedy in the South Korean progressive news site Voice of People.

Monday, April 16 marks the four year anniversary of the Sewol Ferry Tragedy, which claimed three hundred four lives, mostly high school students, who were told to stay put as the overloaded ferry capsized after making a sudden turn. The ferry was carrying more than three times the cargo it was designed to handle, including building materials headed for the controversial naval base on Jeju Island. Then-President Park Geun-hye was nowhere to be seen as the entire nation gaped, horrified at live TV images of the belly-up ferry sinking into the murky sea. Public outcry after the tragedy eventually led to Park’s downfall.

The summer after the Sewol sank to the bottom of the sea, the parents of the dead stopped eating. They sat at Gwanghwamun Plaza and outside the National Assembly building and the Blue House and waged a hunger strike. They refused to be budged until the passage of the “Sewol Special Law.” Park Geun-hye, who had publicly said she was open to meeting with the bereaved families “at any time,” rejected their repeated requests for a meeting.

The bereaved families gathered over five million signatures and succeeded in pushing through the passage of the Sewol Special Law in November, 2014. The law mandated the creation of a special fact-finding commission to get to the bottom of the tragedy, but the investigation was set up to fail from the outset. The then-ruling Saenuri Party (now Liberty Korea Party) systematically impeded the investigation to cover up the president’s whereabouts during the seven hours she had gone missing on the day of the tragedy. The party and the president cried foul and denounced the probe as politically-motivated. The fact-finding commission was ultimately dissolved in September 2016 even before its investigative mandate expired.

The bereaved families demanded the government raise the wreck of the sunken Sewol from the sea floor to recover the remains of the still-missing. As the first anniversary of the tragedy approached, Park Geun-hye pledged that her administration would lift the ferry. But the salvage operation, too, was the subject of endless debate and was repeatedly delayed as no one could agree on anything. The government kept changing its mind about the recovery method, and the process caused further damage to the wreckage. Bereaved family members accused the government of purposefully dragging its feet. 

As if to prove the families’ point, as soon as Park was impeached in 2017, the ferry finally surfaced above water. On March 22, 2017, less than two weeks after the Constitutional Court’s ruling to impeach Park, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries announced the raising of the Sewol, and the very next day — 1072 days since the tragedy — the wrecked ferry was lifted. 

Today, as we approach the four year anniversary of the tragedy, the Sewol lies at Mokpo Harbor. The Sewol Hull Investigative Committee is trying to piece the wrecked ship back together and hopes to recover the five still-missing bodies.

 

A Gwangju Mother Remembers

“It’s hard to put into words the pain of losing one’s child. I know that feeling,” said Kim Kil-ja, close to eighty years old. “The children trapped inside the Sewol reminded me of my youngest son.” 

Kim had lost her youngest in the Gwangju Uprising and Massacre in May, 1980. Only sixteen years old and a high school freshman, her son Moon Jae-hak was shot to death by the martial law army, which had been deployed by dictator Chun Doo-hwan to crack down on the pro-democracy uprising. Kim remembers her last conversation with her deceased son: “I said, ‘The martial law army is coming, so let’s go home,’ and he said, ‘So many are dead, including my classmate. I need to go to the provincial government building to help out.’ I’ll regret for the rest of my life that I didn’t bring him home that day. It had never occurred to me that they would kill such young children.”

Jae-hak’s body came home as a cold corpse in June, 1980. With bullet holes in the head and chest and still in school uniform, his body was discovered buried in a makeshift grave in Mangwol-dong near Gwangju. 

“When I heard about the students who gave up their life jackets to their friends on the Sewol, it reminded me of Jae-hak, who insisted he had to go to defend the provincial government building,” said Kim. The provincial government building in Gwangju had been the center of mass rallies during the uprising and where the last remaining rebels had holed themselves up until they were massacred by the U.S.-backed South Korean army in the last days of the struggle. “The Sewol children were the same age as Jae-hak when he died. They were only thinking of helping others. They didn’t know that they themselves faced death,” Kim lamented.

Her son’s death transformed Kim from a housewife to a fighter. She stood up to the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship and demanded his ouster as well as the truth behind the Gwangju massacre. Today, thirty-eight years later, she is still fighting and explained what kept her going:

It was hard enough having lost a child, but we were all accused of being rioters. It made me a maniac. I stalked Chun Doo-hwan everywhere to protest. If the police were guarding the gates, I would climb over walls. Once, when I was detained by the KCIA (Korean Central Intelligence Agency, the precursor to the current National Intelligence Service), they cursed me out and said, ‘If only you weren’t a bereaved family member, we could get rid of you in ways that no one would know.’ That’s when I realized the power I have—that they can’t kill me because I’m a family member. That’s what made me fearless.

Once mocked as traitors, communists, attention-seekers and much worse, the bereaved families of the Sewol Tragedy, too, have become hardened fighters and refuse to stop until the last body is laid to rest and all those responsible are held accountable. To mark the four year anniversary, they have called for a mass public gathering at Gwanghwamun Plaza on Saturday, April 14. The gathering will highlight testimonies of survivors and bereaved families, as well as cultural performances and yellow ribbons that have come to symbolize the Sewol story. Koreans in major cities across the United States will also gather in remembrance.

 

By Hyun Lee

 

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