The South Korean Ferry Tragedy Has Exposed a Bitter Political Divide

Sewol Disaster Impact On South Korea Continues
Paula Bronstein—Getty Images A man holds a candle as protesters continue their fight at the Sewol ferry protest camp September 16, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea.

Incredibly, right-wing groups in South Korea have a problem with families of Sewol victims continuing to mourn their loved ones

When the Sewol ferry sank in April, South Korea was united in trauma over the tragedy of a routine ferry ride that somehow resulted in the deaths of around 300 people, many of them high school kids.

More than six months later, that grief has mutated into bitterness along political lines, and given rise to a slow-burn faceoff between antagonistic civic groups in the heart of the South Korean capital.

In Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul’s symbolic center, amid groups of tourists taking selfies, relatives of some of those who died on the Sewol and their supporters have, for more than three months, been camped out in a makeshift tent city. And on a sidewalk across the square, civic groups with a very different take on the issue of the sinking have set up their own camp.

The relatives are calling on the government to mandate a thorough investigation into the cause of the sinking. “All we want is the truth,” said Kim Sung-shil, the 50-year-old mother of a high school boy who died in the sinking. More than six months after her son’s death, Kim still introduces herself as “Dong-hyuk’s mom.”

The families and their supporters argue that corruption and corner-cutting were behind the sinking, and need to be rooted out. The company that operated the Sewol is believed to have violated safety regulations by overloading the ship and failing to train the crew in how to carry out an emergency evacuation. The government’s emergency response has also been criticized for being late and ineffective.

When it went down on Apr. 16, the Sewol was carrying 476 people, only 172 of whom were rescued, many by private vessels who went to the scene to help out. Ten bodies have still not been recovered.

“If we never find the real truth behind the tragedy, our society will just become a darker place where people fear for their safety,” Kim said.

In part because most of them came from a working class suburb, victims of the sinking have become identified with the political left, leading to a forceful backlash from right wing groups that have their roots in red-bashing. Across the road from where Kim is camped out, right-wingers argue that the grieving families have been at it long enough and it’s time to get back to business as usual.

“It’s time for someone to stand up and say enough is enough,” said Bae Sung-gwan, a conservative activist and retired career soldier. He added, “At the time of the sinking, everyone felt sympathy for them, but a long time has passed and that sympathy has run out.”

In late September, while Sewol families and supporters were holding a hunger strike, rightwing activists held a protest of their own where they feasted on pizza and fried chicken directly in front of them.

Kim Sung-shil said of her conservative adversaries, “I have no idea why they’re here. It’s like they don’t have families.”

The Sewol incident and its fallout even led Lee and some associates, all graying men, to revive the Northwest Youth Association, a conservative youth group with a history of anti-communist purges.

After the 1951-53 Korean War, South Korea was, for decades, led by military dictatorships who argued that harsh controls were necessary to protect the country’s fragile peace from North Korean communist infiltration.

Some far-right activists also still believe that South Korea could at any time be overrun by communists from North Korea. “The leftists are using this [the Sewol sinking] as a chance to seize power. If they come to control the government, our country will be vulnerable to communists,” said Kang In-ho, a rightwing activist manning his side’s main table, gathering signatures for a petition seeking for any special Sewol investigation to be cancelled.

Parliament was deadlocked for weeks due to disagreement over the composure of the investigative body and the limits of its authority. The ruling and opposition parties reached a compromise on the law in early October, but the families are refusing to accept it on the grounds that they weren’t given a say in choosing who will carry out the investigation. The bill mandating the investigation will be passed at the end of October, once parliament finishes regular audits of government ministries.

The outdoor struggle is therefore likely to continue, even as Seoul’s crisp autumn weather segues into the bitter cold of winter. Kim says she’s in for the long haul. “I know Dong-hyuk is watching,” she said. “I can’t give up now.”

Kang In-ho says it’s time to move on from the Sewol tragedy. “The economy is suffering because they’re trying to keep everyone sad.”

But, Kang says, he’s not ready to move on from his own activist camp just yet. When asked how long his group planned to keep their post, Kang points over his shoulder at the Sewol families and says, “One day longer than them.”

TIME ferry disaster

South Korean Police Raid Church in Hunt for Businessman Linked With Sunken Ferry

Shin Young-geun—Yonhap/AP Police officers raid a religious facility owned by the Evangelical Baptist Church in Anseong, South Korea, on June 11, 2014

Yoo Byung-eun is believed to be the stricken Sewol ferry's de facto owner

Some 5,000 South Korean police officers raided a religious compound on Wednesday in their search for fugitive businessman Yoo Byung-eun, wanted for his alleged complicity in the April 16 Sewol ferry tragedy that left over 300 people dead or missing.

The compound belongs to the Evangelical Baptist Church where Yoo is a prominent member. Critics call the group a sect — a claim Yoo denies — and investigators believe their business arm helped fund Yoo’s complex web of holding companies, through which he allegedly owned the sunken ship. Corrupt management of the ferry’s operator is claimed to have led to deficient safety procedures, eventually contributing to the disaster.

Four church members were arrested on suspicion of assisting Yoo evade the law, and another member was detained for allegedly attempting to impede the police operation.

About 200 church members protested the raid, displaying a banner that read, “We’ll protect Yoo Byung-eun even if 100,000 church members are all arrested.”

Police and prosecutors are offering a $500,000 reward for tips about Yoo’s whereabouts, and $100,000 for his eldest son. His daughter Yoo Som-na was detained in Paris under an international-arrest warrant in May.


TIME South Korea

Daughter of Korean Businessman Wanted in Ferry Disaster Arrested

Lee Jin-man—AP Commuters at a train station in Seoul walk past a screen displaying the wanted poster for Yoo Byung-eun and others, on Monday, May 26, 2014.

Yoo Som-Na is detained in Paris after Korean prosecutors filed an Interpol "red notice" against her and her brother

The daughter of Yoo Byung-eun, the fugitive South Korean businessman wanted in connection with the April 16 Sewol ferry tragedy, appeared before a court in Paris on Wednesday.

French authorities detained Yoo Som-Na under an international arrest warrant for embezzlement, and they are expected to extradite her, Yonhap News Agency reports.

Korean police had earlier filed an Interpol “red notice” against Yoo Som-Na and her brother Yoo Hyuk-ki, who are believed to be involved in or controlling Chonghaejin Marine Co., the company that owned and operated the ill-fated ferry.

Chonghaejin allegedly ignored safety warnings ahead of the disaster, which claimed about 300 lives.

Warrants are still out for Som-Na’s father and brother.

TIME South Korea

South Korean President Vows to Disband Coast Guard Over Ferry Disaster

Lee Jin-man—AP Passersby at a Seoul train station watch a live television broadcast of South Korean President Park Geun-hye's speech to the nation on the Sewol ferry tragedy on May 19, 2014

In a tearful, televised apology — and facing vociferous criticism from political opponents — President Park Geun-hye says the coast guard failed those who drowned in the Sewol tragedy and must be done away with as part of a regulatory overhaul

South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye vowed Monday to disband the national coast guard, as part of a reformist push and “great transformation,” that she said the country was owed after hundreds of high school students died in April’s Sewol ferry disaster.

Park’s nationally televised speech was her most heartfelt apology so far, and a reflection of the political crisis the tragedy has spawned. Over the weekend, police detained over 200 people attempting to march to her office to call for her resignation.

The outrage has been caused by what critics feel was a slow initial response to the sinking of the Sewol, as well as the systemic failings that allowed the ferry to set sail despite being dangerously overloaded.

Park said the coast guard had failed to do enough to save the students on board the ill-fated ferry, and that their duties would either be transferred to the national police force or into a new safety agency she intends to set up.

The tearful Park also declared a war on deeply entrenched ties between businesses and government regulators, which many say has led to lax regulatory enforcement.


TIME Bangladesh

Bangladesh Ferry Capsizes With About 200 Onboard

The ferry capsized outside the capital in stormy weather, triggering a rescue operation involving the the country's navy and coast guard.

A ferry carrying about 200 people capsized in a river in Bangladesh Thursday, Reuters reports. At least six bodies have been recovered so far.

The ferry overturned in the Meghna River near the capital of Dhaka amid stormy weather. The government has dispatched navy and coast guard vessels to aid in rescue efforts.

One of the six recovered bodies is that of a child, Reuters reports.


TIME South Korea

Son of Sunken Ferry’s Owning Family Placed on Wanted List

Kim Hong-ji—Reuters A flag depicting the company logo of Chonghaejin Marine Co flutters on its ferry Ohamana at Incheon Port Passenger Terminal in Incheon April 22, 2014.

Yoo Dae-kyun is being urgently sought after by South Korean authorities amid fears that he may escape overseas

Yoo Dae-kyun, the scion of the South Korean family suspected of being the de facto owner of the sunken Sewol ferry, was placed on a most wanted list on Wednesday, as it was feared that he could flee the country, possibly by sea.

Prosecutors believe that answers to the sinking of the Sewol could lie within the family running Chonghaejin Marine, the company that operated the ferry, Yonhap News Agency reports.

The April 16 disaster left more than 300 people dead or missing,

Investigators are also looking into people who allegedly have helped Yoo — first son of millionaire businessman, ex-convict and religious figure Yoo Byeong-eun — to evade a prosecution summons until now.


TIME South Korea

South Korean President Apologizes Over Ferry Disaster

Yonhap—AP Photo South Korean President Park Geun-hye pays tribute to the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol at a group memorial altar in Ansan, south of Seoul, on Tuesday, April 29, 2014

President Park Geun-hye apologized on Tuesday for Seoul’s "poor initial response" to the sinking of the Sewol, which has left 302 people dead or missing, as prosecutors began questioning the chief executive of the company that owned and operated the vessel

South Korean President Park Geun-hye apologized on Tuesday for the government’s “poor initial response” to the sinking of the Sewol ferry, as prosecutors began questioning the chief executive of the company that owned and operated the vessel.

The President’s apology was made at a Cabinet meeting, where she also proposed to launch a new ministry to supervise safety affairs. Earlier, she paid her respects at a memorial altar in Ansan, a city that lost some 260 students and teachers in the disaster. During the visit, she promised a man kneeling in front of her to make sure this kind of incident wouldn’t happen again, Yonhap news agency reports.

Government agencies, crew members and the ferry’s owner have come under fierce criticism for the disaster, which left 302 people either dead or missing. Prime Minister Chung Hong-won offered to resign on Sunday and is expected to stand down after the recovery operation comes to a conclusion.

Two recently released videos have fueled criticism, as they show crew members telling passengers in the tilting ship to stay where they are, and the coast guard helping the captain off the boat at an early stage of the rescue operation.

“Everyone was wearing a life vest, so we couldn’t tell who was passenger and who was crew,” coast-guard captain Kim Kyung-il told reporters.

Strong currents are hampering recovery efforts, but divers have managed to enter the lower half of the passenger decks. Of the 64 cabins most likely to contain bodies, 38 have so far been searched, rescue-team spokesman Ko Myung-seok told the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, Kim Han-sik, the chief executive of Chonghaejin Marine Co., which owned and operated the Sewol, was brought before the Incheon Prosecutor’s Office on Tuesday morning. The company’s owner, reclusive tycoon Yoo Byung-eun, is also being investigated for embezzlement, dereliction of duty, tax evasion and bribery, and his daughter and son have been asked by the authorities to return to the country to face questioning.

TIME South Korea

Ferry Disaster: Pressure Mounts on South Korean Government

The Prime Minister's resignation hasn't muted criticism over the authorities' handling of the crisis, with calls for a Presidential apology amid larger probe

South Korean authorities remain under sustained pressure for their handling of the Sewol ferry disaster, even though Prime Minister Chung Hong-won apologized and resigned over the matter on Sunday.

The government has come under fierce attack for a seemingly slow rescue operation after the ferry capsized on April 16, leaving 188 dead and over 100 people still unaccounted for. Several of the ship’s safety breaches have also reflected badly on the administration, and prompted demands for an overhaul of the country’s safety inspection agencies and the government’s disaster response system.

Members from both sides of parliament have suggested that President Park should apologize too, something she is tipped to do at a Cabinet meeting Tuesday. Leading opposition politician Ahn Cheol-soo criticized the President’s decision to let her Prime Minister resign as “extremely irresponsible” and tantamount to a a“cowardly shirking” of her responsibility, the Yonhap news agency reported.

Meanwhile, prosecutors have raided vessel traffic centers that monitored the ferry during its fateful final voyage and have requested search warrants for a Coast Guard office. The Coast Guard has been criticized for asking a teenage passenger who made the first emergency call to state the ship’s longitude and latitude.

Inclement weather severely hampered search efforts over the weekend, and effectively suspended them Monday. Relatives of the missing passengers have been in private meetings with rescuers over the next phase of the recovery mission. Since divers are having difficulties reaching the parts of the vessel closest to the seabed, officials are mulling whether they should cut through the hull or use explosives, which may risk further damaging the already decomposing bodies within. The rescue team is reportedly also in the last stages of preparing for a salvage operation of the ship.

The weather at the scene is expected to gradually clear on Tuesday.

TIME South Korea

The South Korean PM Says He Will Quit Over the Ferry Tragedy

South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won Announces His Will to Resign
Park Young-Dae—Donga Daily/Getty Images South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won leaves the Central Government Complex in Seoul on April 27, 2014

The South Korean President accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Chung Hong-won on Sunday, after the country's No. 2 official said he was prepared to step down because of the state's fumbled response to the April 16 ferry sinking

Updated: April 27, 2014, at 9 a.m. E.T.

South Korea’s Prime Minister Chung Hong-won has said he is prepared to resign in order to take responsibility for the government’s handling of the Sewol ferry disaster, in which over 300 people have been killed or are missing.

President Park Geun-hye accepted his resignation but asked Chung to remain in office until the government completes its rescue operations.

Fifteen crew members have been arrested and accused of not doing enough to help passengers escape the vessel, which sank on April 16. The captain’s order to evacuate the vessel was allegedly given when it was listing too severely for most passengers to leave. Subsequent investigations have also found that the Sewol may have been overloaded, overcrowded and under the command of an inexperienced junior officer at the time of the tragedy.

“There have been so many varieties of irregularities that have continued in every corner of our society and practices that have gone wrong,” Chung said. “I hope these deep-rooted evils get corrected this time and this kind of accident never happens again.”

He told media in the South Korean capital, Seoul: “As I saw grieving families suffering with the pain of losing their loved ones and the sadness and resentment of the public, I thought I should take all responsibility as Prime Minister.”

Although search teams are battling difficult conditions — including strong currents, poor visibility and freezing water — relatives of the dead or missing passengers have heavily criticized the official response to the disaster. When he visited an operational area near the site of the sunken ferry last week, Chung was booed and his car surrounded.

TIME South Korea

Ferry Tragedy Could Overshadow Obama’s South Korea Visit

President Obama pauses for a moment of silence for those who died in the ferry disaster as Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, participate in the bilateral meetings at the Blue House, April 25, 2014, in Seoul.
Carolyn Kaster—AP President Obama pauses for a moment of silence for those who died in the ferry disaster as Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, participate in the bilateral meetings at the Blue House, April 25, 2014, in Seoul.

President Obama's arrival in South Korea comes at a sensitive time as officials mull a salvage operation for the sunken Sewol ferry, a deadly tragedy that has pushed a nation deep into mourning and threatens to overshadow trade and security talks

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.

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