SEOUL - As South Korean President Park Geun-hye faces mounting pressure to resign over an alleged corruption scandal, she recently received more bad news about a past disaster that first damaged her credibility with the public, the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014.
More than two years after the Sewol sank, the government finally began efforts to salvage the ferry in June. It planned to complete the salvage by the end of July, then later said it was aiming for late October.
Now a subcontractor for Shanghai Salvage Co., the firm chosen by the government to lead the salvage, says it’s unlikely the recovery will be completed this year.
"When things started to go wrong, they [South Korean government] should have stood back and said, ‘Let’s take our time,' " said Bill Stewart, the CEO of Stewart Technology Associates and an expert on the dynamics of salvage in the open ocean.
When the Sewol ferry capsized off the southwest coast of the Korean Peninsula in April of 2014, 304 of the 476 people on board were killed in one of the country’s worst maritime disasters. Most of the victims were high school students.
Park’s competence was called into question following the government’s bungled response. She apologized to the nation as her approval rating plummeted.
The disaster quickly highlighted the government’s inadequate emergency protocol, but it also exposed deep-seated issues of corruption and failed regulations.
The accident has been largely blamed on the ship’s illegal redesign and cargo overload, but officials have also pointed to negligence by crew members along with slow rescue efforts.
South Koreans were stunned, and their anger has not abated since learning of the role corruption played in the sinking. Many still demand a full inspection of the ferry, if it's ever raised, to investigate other possible factors for the disaster.
Last month, the head of South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries (MOF), Kim Young-suk, told local broadcaster KBS the salvage may not be completed this year “in a worst-case scenario.”
Kim said the government is readjusting the timeline but will see the project through.
Shanghai Salvage is trying to recover the ship intact in hopes of finding the bodies of nine missing Sewol victims.
"You’re going for delicate treasure and you don’t want to damage the treasure as you bring it up," said Stewart.
He said a ship this size has never been salvaged in one piece.
"And that’s what’s very different: Salvagers aren’t used to trying and keeping things together in one piece," said Stewart. “They’re just trying to get rid of a wreck that’s a hazard to navigation.”
As winter begins to settle in, out go opportunities to retrieve the Sewol this year, said Stewart.
He said winter weather means "larger waves more often and higher winds more often." Waves and wind, he said, limit crane and lift operations.
It’s unclear how late Shanghai Salvage will work into the year or if they’ll suspend the project. The company would not comment on the operation, telling VOA it has an agreement with its client, the South Korean government, to keep the project secret.
Stewart suggested spring would be an appropriate time to start again after poor winter conditions.
Struggle on the seabed
Since the lifting operation began in June, Shanghai Salvage’s goal has been to place 26 steel beams underneath the ship to attach to cranes and lift it to the surface.
According to Kim, the government official, placing the final six beams has been difficult because the ship's stern is partially buried in the seabed.
Philip George, a geotechnical engineer in Britain and a senior associate for Stewart’s company, said the crew may be dealing with more than soil.
"What they didn’t realize, what we think, is that there is a possible rock pinnacle or something in the lower levers of soil and rock, which they hadn’t expected," said George.
“Unfortunately, they were rather short of a full understanding and assumptions were made that were proved to be incorrect.”
However, what may be more problematic is how the stern became buried in the first place.
During a second attempt to lift the bow and place the steel beams beneath the ship, Stewart said, the Sewol twisted, or heeled, on its way back down.
"So far in this project, a lot of things have not gone to plan," he said.
Families of the victims hold constant vigil among a dozen or so temporary buildings in the middle of Seoul’s Sejong Boulevard.
They demand a thorough investigation of the sinking and believe the government prematurely shut down a special commission established to probe the disaster.
The government "only focused on finding the bodies of the nine missing people," said Kim Hyung-wook, an investigator on the Special Investigation Commission on 4/16 Sewol Ferry Disaster. "If that’s the only focus of the salvage, we’ll never know why the ship sank and who should be held accountable."
Even if the ship is raised, rumors generated by the disaster are unlikely to fade away for President Park.
Kim recently held a rally with victims’ families in downtown Seoul, demanding that Park disclose where she was for seven hours while the Sewol sank.
"As president, she needs to clearly say what she did during that time, and what she asked of her Cabinet," said Kim. “The rumors grew because she never answered.”
According to some reports, she was with her former chief of staff and the ex-husband of Choi Soon-sil, the woman at the center of the scandal now rocking South Korea.