The tragedy of the sunken ferry Sewol could eclipse topics otherwise expected to top the agenda during U.S. President Barack Obama's state visit to South Korea.
The White House has stated that Obama will not change his schedule, and he is still expected to discuss matters of trade and security — warning against North Korean nuclear provocations and calling for defused tensions in the region’s territorial disputes. But his arrival Friday comes at a sensitive time for the Sewol recovery effort.
Officials are currently mulling a plan to raise the submerged vessel, before the remaining bodies become overly decomposed. However, relatives of the more than 140 still missing passengers are outraged that those bodies haven’t already been retrieved. In a tense exchange Thursday, family members surrounded senior officials visiting the docks where the rescue operations are based, leveling heated accusations and preventing the officials from leaving.
Family members say that more volunteer divers should have been allowed to participate in the mission, despite the risks that have already seen several professional divers being treated for decompression sickness. Rescue officials counter that volunteers slow down the rescue process and are not able to stay underwater for long enough in the cold, murky and dangerous conditions.
Meanwhile, prosecutors have raided the offices of the Salvation Sect, a religious group they believe is led by the owner of the ill-fated ferry, billionaire Yoo Byung-eun. Reports claim that Yoo used the church’s funds to set up his business, in order to gain jobs for members and to increase his personal wealth.
Established in the 1960s by Yoo’s father-in-law, the Salvation Sect has grown to include some 100 churches in South Korea and about 200,000 members worldwide. Many senior employees of Chonghaejin Marine, the company operating the Sewol – including the ferry’s now arrested captain – are devout members.
Yoo is a controversial figure in South Korea, having been jailed for fraud in the 1990s and investigated for his involvement in a suspected mass suicide of 30 of the Salvation Sect’s members in 1987.