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Ferry Disaster Fallout Divides South Korea

  • Jason Strother

Families who lost children in the South Korean ferry accident and their supporters occupy a plaza in downtown Seoul. (Photo: Jason Strother for VOA)

Families who lost children in the South Korean ferry accident and their supporters occupy a plaza in downtown Seoul. (Photo: Jason Strother for VOA)

South Korean lawmakers have agreed to launch a new investigation into April’s deadly passenger ferry accident, bringing an end to a months-long deadlock in the country’s National Assembly. But the country’s unity and sympathy for the victims in the days and weeks following the disaster has since given way to a politicized rift that is now on display in the streets.

When the Sewol ferry capsized, Lee Jeong-chul‘s teenage son was among the roughly 300, mostly high school students, who perished. And for the past two months Lee as well as some other Sewol victim parents and their supporters have occupied a plaza in downtown Seoul.

Even though investigators have determined the ship most likely sank because of illegal modifications and overloading, Lee says the families are still looking for the truth.

Lee Jeong-chul lost his teenage son when the South Korean ferry the Sewol sank in April. (Photo: Jason Strother for VOA)

Lee Jeong-chul lost his teenage son when the South Korean ferry the Sewol sank in April. (Photo: Jason Strother for VOA)

Lee says the families want a safer country, so that something like this will never happen again and parents won’t have to suffer like they have.

The families had supported a bill in the National Assembly that would open a new investigation into the disaster.

After five months of political deadlock, lawmakers this week finally passed that measure. But that has not gone over well on the streets.

Jang Seong-hwe is an activist who has worked with the accident victims’ families.

He is unhappy with the agreement because it does not allow the families to be a part of the process of selecting a new prosecutor to lead the investigation.

Jang says the families and their supporters will not give up their protest.

But they are not the only ones demonstrating on the streets.

Hongdo Island, South Korea

Hongdo Island, South Korea

For the past month, protests against the Sewol families have been staged nearby. Activists call on the parents to give back donated money and some burned a flag embroidered with a yellow ribbon, a symbol of the Sewol victims.

Byun Hee-jae, a conservative pundit, was amongst the demonstrators. He says at first everyone felt sympathy for these parents, but now they are asking too much.

We have already had an investigation, he says. It blamed the ferry company and the coast guard. There is nothing more to discuss about it.

Following the passage of the law authorizing a new investigation, Byun tweeted that the fight is not over.

Opinion divided on investigation

Recent surveys in South Korea suggest that public opinion is also divided over opening a new investigation into the accident.

Some observers say that after nearly six months, South Koreans might be feeling Sewol fatigue.

Author Michael Breen says sympathy for these parents and their cause might have been lost because the disaster has become too politicized. “The families of the victims wanted an investigation to thoroughly get to the bottom of this. And the government and the establishment have resisted that. The real reason is that they don’t want the opposition to run all over this, they don’t want it to be an opposition run investigation. That’s the impasse that has kept this thing alive,” he says.

Grieving father Lee Jeong-chul is upset about the opposition he and the Seowl families have encountered. And he adds he is not happy with the lawmakers either.

Lee says the ruling and opposition parties should stop searching for political advantages in this situation. He says the ferry accident should not have turned into a political fight.

For their part, South Korean lawmakers say they will decide later if the Sewol victims’ families can be a part of the new investigation.

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