Grief, anger as South Korea marks ferry disaster anniversary

Grief, anger and political tension coloured the first anniversary of South Korea’s Sewol ferry disaster yesterday as weeping relatives mourned the 304 dead — mostly schoolchildren — and accused top officials of indifference to the tragedy.

Bowing to a key demand of the victims’ families, President Park Geun-Hye used the anniversary to announce that the 6,825-tonne vessel would be brought to the surface at “the earliest possible date”.

Park made the statement during a visit to the southern island of Jindo, the closest landfall to the site where the Sewol sank on April 16.

Family members — still angry over the official response to the disaster — declined to meet her, and there was no immediate response from the relatives to the announcement that the ferry would be raised.

The focus of Thursday’s anniversary was on Ansan city, south of Seoul, where a single high school lost 250 students when the ferry went down.

Flags flew at half-mast and yellow ribbons fluttered from trees and lampposts as sirens blared across the city at 10:00 am (0100 GMT) and residents bowed their heads for a minute’s silence and prayer.

Despite heavy rain, a steady stream of mourners passed through the memorial hall in Ansan, containing hundreds of black-ribboned, flower-ringed portraits of the dead students.

Parents and other relatives sobbed and beat their chests as they left messages, stuffed animals and favoured snacks under the framed photos.

“My son, I hope you’re happy up there. Mom misses you so much,” one message read.

A giant screen showed a slideshow of family pictures below a large banner that read: “We’re sorry. We love you. We won’t forget.”

Uniformed students from Danwon High School were among those who paid their respects, standing in tearful silence before the portraits of their dead classmates.

Relatives had threatened to boycott a formal memorial in the afternoon, unless the government committed to a fully independent inquiry and to salvaging the Sewol.

“We just want the deaths of our kids to become an opportunity to create a safe society where no one should go through such pain,” said Chun Myeong-Sun, who lost his teenage son.

“I will take the necessary steps to salvage the ship at the earliest possible date,” the president said in Jindo.

“My heart still aches when I think of the nine people who are still missing under the cold water, and of their families,” she added.

The overloaded Sewol was carrying 476 people, including 325 students from the high school in Ansan, when it sank. Only 75 students survived.

A total of 295 bodies were recovered from the ferry, but nine remained unaccounted for when divers finally called off the dangerous search in November.

The families of those still missing had spearheaded the calls for the ferry to be brought to the surface — an operation that would cost an estimated $110 million.

The disaster, with the loss of so many young lives, stunned the entire country, and one year later there is still a deep sense of public grievance over the perceived inadequacy of the official response.

While largely blamed on the ship’s illegal redesign and overloading, the accident laid bare deeper-rooted problems of corruption, lax safety standards and regulatory failings attributed to the country’s relentless push for economic growth.

“Nothing has changed,” the JoongAng Daily newspaper said in an editorial Thursday, adding that promised reforms of the government had fallen “way short of changing its often wicked ways”.

An editorial in the largest circulation Chosun Ilbo also concluded that “the country remains unsafe”.

After the scheduled event in Ansan, large crowds were expected to turn out for an evening candlelight vigil in central Seoul.

Public opinion has been largely supportive of the families, although some conservative groups say left-wing organisations have hijacked the cause in an effort to embarrass the government.

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