The Truth Must Not Sink with Sewol

Tiny - Posted on 14 July 2015

Dae-Han Song/ Chief Editor of International Strategy Center World Current Report

July 7, 2015

More than a year has passed since the Sewol Ferry sank on April 16. Despite the broken promises, media smearing and obfuscation, public backlash, red-baiting, pepper spraying, and beating, the families of the Sewol victims (families) continue to lead the movement for truth, justice, closure, and a society where such tragedy would never re-occur. Only truth and social change can bring meaning to their sons’ and daughters’ senseless deaths. They fight not only against time, but against the Park Administration which is determined to cover up the truth. In their latest battle to uncover the truth, the families fight the Park Administration’s enforcement decree to the special law which instead of implementing the latter, effectively neutralizes its ability to search for the truth.

An Accident Turns to National Tragedy
On April 16 2014, the Sewol Ferry capsized on its way to Korea's Jeju island after making a
sharp turn. The captain and his crew ordered the passengers to stay put. They evacuated the ship when the Coast Guard arrived, while 304 passengers, mostly high school students, stayed put awaiting instructions. 172 made it off the ferry and were rescued. Without an emergency response plan or coordination, the Coast Guard and Navy fumbled through the rescue and saved none of the 304 inside.

While the immediate cause of the accident was a sharp turn that careened the ferry to one side and the extra cargo and passengers--in makeshift holds and cabins--that prevented it from regaining balance, it was the convergence of corruption, greed, and lax regulation that led to sinking of the Sewol by turning a blind eye to the excess weight, hiring inexperienced mostly irregular workers, providing little emergency response training, and allowing the ferry to operate in Korea after it was retired in Japan. As the Coast Guard and Navy fumbled through the “golden time” of rescue and then underwater search and rescue, they saved no one and the accident became a national tragedy live on television.

Mourning Turns to Anger and into a Movement
So many absurdities converging together into the tragedy called into question Korean society: “What’s it mean to be developed, if we couldn’t rescue any of them?” “What good is money when people die?” “What are our schools teaching our children to survive in the world?” Then catatonic sorrow turned to a desperate yearning for the truth led by the families. As their search for answers were frustrated by those carrying out the rescue and recovery and then by the Park Administration’s vague delaying promises of doing their best, the yearning turned to a demand for a special law that would grant the authority to inquire and investigate the truth, and prosecute those responsible. When members of the ruling Saenuri Party accused the families of pushing for the special law to gain postmortem honorary designations for their deceased children and scholarships for alive ones, the media obliged and continued misinforming the public even when no such provisions existed in the special law proposed by the families. As the families escalated their demands for a special law to investigate the truth by going on hunger strikes and one father hunger striking for 46 days, members of the Saenuri party attacked the sincerity of the hunger strikes, right-wing counter-protesters held eating parties at the site of fasting, and the media redbaitted the father. Despite all the efforts to break the families’ spirits, their demand for investigating the truth remains. Fueled by grief and moral outrage at the senseless deaths of
their sons and daughters, they have dedicated their lives and bodies to leading a movement for the truth about the Sewol tragedy and a safer society.

Park Undoes the Special Sewol Law with Its Enforcement Decree
Nearly 7 months of struggle later, over 6 million signatures, numerous protests and candlelight vigils, 40+ day hunger strikes, and marches, the families passed a special Sewol Law through the National Assembly that contained a special committee to inquire about the causes of the tragedy. While the final version was a greatly weakened one from that proposed by the families, the families nonetheless accepted it as it contained various provisions that would help search for the truth.

Yet, on March 27 2015, through the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, the Park Administration introduced an enforcement decree that undermines - rather than implements - the special Sewol Law‘s inquiry committee by controlling key support roles and limiting its scope of inquiry. First, it undercuts the committee’s independence by appointing a ruling party member to be general secretary and filling strategic support roles, including for the truth investigation, with government officials. This allows a backdoor for the Park Administration and ruling party to paralyze and influence the inquiry even as the key actors/villains in this tragedy are in the Park Administration and ruling party.

Secondly, the enforcement decree limits the committee’s capacity by arbitrarily decreasing its
size from that stipulated in the special Sewol Law and by filling a majority of the support personnel positions with government officials including from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and the Ministry of Public Security and Safety (which includes the Coast Guard): the latter two are the central actors/villains in the accident and rescue operations.

Finally, it limits the scope of the inquiry. While the special law stipulates that the committee is mandated to analyze and inquire into the causes of the Sewol tragedy, the enforcement decree limits the scope to the results from the government’s investigation. The special law stipulates that the committee can inquire into the government’s rescue and recovery operations; the enforcement decree limits it to its rescue and recovery documents. Furthermore, it limits the special Sewol Law’s mandate of inquiring into disaster prevention and response in general to the Sewol tragedy in particular. That is why the families are demanding the enforcement decree be abolished.

Against overwhelming odds and great foes, led by the indomitable spirit of bereaved parents, a movement wrested the special Sewol Law from the elite and its henchmen. Now the Park Administration threatens to end the search for the truth with its enforcement decree. The Sewol tragedy was no accident; it was a symptom of a society that values economic growth and
profits over people’s livelihoods. To turn the world right side up, the families of the Sewol victims cannot do it on their own. They, alone, cannot create a safer society for all. It is while fighting for a safer society that values life and people that we will transform ourselves into one, and it starts with the truth.

Abolish the enforcement decree! Recover the Sewol! Recover the truth! Recover the 9 missing bodies! 


Sign-up for POOR email!