Nine bodies remain unaccounted for, and the disaster’s anniversary is again heating up as a political issue
Thursday marks one year since the Sewol ferry sank off the southwest coast of South Korea. But for Lee Keum-hui, it feels like only a day or two since she lost her daughter Eun-hwa, who was one of 476 passengers setting out from Incheon for Jeju, a resort island.
“Some people say it’s time to move on, but how can we do that when our daughter’s body is still out there somewhere?” said Lee, 46, sweeping at the placid waters off Paengmok Harbor, the nearest point on land to the tragedy.
Eun-hwa is one of nine passengers who were never recovered. Lee and her husband still make the nearly five-hour trip from Ansan, a southern suburb of the capital, Seoul, down to Paengmok two or three times a week. There, they sit and hope that somehow their daughter’s remains will be returned to them.
South Korea was overwhelmed with grief when the Sewol sank. People struggled to fathom how a routine ferry ride could lead to 304 deaths, many of them students on a high school field trip. As the ordeal dragged on, the initial sadness segued into fury as the public accused the government of an inept rescue effort.
South Korea engineered a quick rise from poverty after the 1950–53 Korean War and is today one of the world’s wealthier, and more technologically advanced, countries. The shock of the Sewol sinking was compounded by disbelief over how, in a country that had come so far, a simple ferry ride could go so terribly wrong.
In ramshackle Paengmok Harbor, the farthest point on mainland South Korea one can get from the shine of the capital, normal life has mostly returned, with the rescue mission having been called off last autumn. Before last year it was little known beyond the locals who rely on it as a port for fishing boats and traveling to nearby islets.
However, with the sunken hulk still off the coast and nine bodies unaccounted for, Paengmok remains the site of grieving by families and their supporters.
The long, narrow pier is strewn with tokens of the tragedy. Banners with messages of support hang from the railings, imploring, “We won’t forget” and “Kids, come back. It must be so cold out there.” There are flags with the names of the nine passengers who were never recovered. One of them, frayed by the sharp wind that constantly blows in off the water, carries the name Cho Eun-hwa, Lee’s 16-year-old daughter.
The disaster’s anniversary is again heating up as a political issue. Bereaved families have staged large protests in Seoul, calling for the government to carry out a thorough investigation.
In the emotional aftermath of the sinking, the nation’s Prime Minister Chung Hong-won resigned, in what he said was a gesture of responsibility amid a culture of neglecting safety measures. In addition, President Park Geun-hye’s approval ratings plummeted from about 60% to less than 40% in the wake of the tragedy.
Cheonghaejin Marine, the company that operated the Sewol, was also pilloried for failing to follow basic safety protocol and having, a couple of years before, carried out a dangerous refurbishment of the ship that allowed it to carry more passengers but also made it more vulnerable to tipping over.
The firm’s CEO was sentenced to 10 years in prison last November for having violated maritime safety laws. The ferry’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, received 36 years for professional negligence causing death, while the ship’s engineer was sentenced to 30 and other crew members between five and 20 years.
At the time of the ruling, some bereaved families argued that the captain was getting off too easy and should have been sentenced to death. Lee was reportedly not at the helm at the time the Sewol began listing and, along with other crew members, fled the ship while most passengers languished aboard.
Kang Min-kyu, the vice principal of Danwon High School, where many of the young victims studied, committed suicide two days after the disaster. The 52-year-old was among the 172 passengers rescued but couldn’t live with the fact that so many of his young charges were less fortunate.
Late last year, South Korea’s National Assembly passed a law that mandated the formation of a special committee to look into the sinking. However, the investigation hasn’t gotten off the ground because of disagreements between the families and government over the body’s composure and the limits of its authority.
In addition to her hopes for an official probe, Lee says she won’t be able to move on from losing Eun-hwa until her daughter’s remains have been recovered. “We’ve been here for the past year, and our goal is still the same: to find our beloved child,” Lee said.
In Korea’s Confucian culture, great importance is placed on holding a ceremony to mark the end of a person’s life. And experts say moving on is especially difficult for parents who could only watch on TV as their children perished.
“The parents’ grief has been exacerbated by their inability to have intervened, to have assumed the role of their child’s protector,” said Ansuk Jeong, a Ph.D. in community psychology and research professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Kwon Oh-bok, a 61-year-old who lost his brother, nephew and sister-in-law, has spent the past year living in a small housing unit at Paengmok provided by the local government.
When the Sewol sank, Kwon’s brother’s family of four was on their way to start a new life in Jeju, having purchased a tangerine farm. Kwon’s 6-year-old niece was the family’s only survivor and now lives with an aunt.
Kwon says he’s still waiting for some kind of closure and would like the government to raise the prone hull from the seabed, a process that could take more than a year, and cost $110 million, according to a study commissioned by South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.
“Once they raise the ferry I’ll be ready to leave, but not until then,” Kwon said.
Lee wears Eun-hwa’s student ID card around her neck, with a headshot of the young girl with a slight smile and dark, horn-rimmed glasses. Lee says her expectations have dropped precipitously since she first came to Paengmok. Having arrived last April hoping Eun-hwa would be rescued alive, this faded into the simple desire to see her only daughter’s face one last time.
Now, facing the reality of Eun-hwa having spent one year in the briny depths, Lee says, “I just want to hug her bones.”