Families of South Korea ferry victims still fighting for investigation one year later

Families of those killed in the South Korean ferry sinking a year ago are still fighting for an investigation

When Kim Dong-hyun arrived at work on April 16 last year, he turned on his computer and noticed a news alert: A ferry was sinking off South Korea's south coast. In an instant, Kim, 53, was overcome with dread, realizing the ship was carrying his only daughter, Da-young.

The 17-year-old was on a school trip to the island of Jeju for what was meant to be one last bit of fun before she buckled down to prepare for South Korea's highly competitive college entrance exam.

Kim, his wife and other parents scrambled to rent buses to take them to Jindo, the town nearest to the site, about four hours away. Through the rest of the day, they and the rest of South Korea watched in disbelief on TV as the ferry and more than 300 lives were slowly swallowed by the sea.

"On that day," Kim says, "my happy little world was permanently destroyed."

Da-young's body was not recovered for eight days. When Kim returned home to Ansan, he rode in the back of an ambulance, crouched next to his daughter's corpse.

A year later, he, his wife and two sons are still learning to live without her.

"Our family has been broken. She occupied a huge space in our lives," he says. "Now she's gone and that space is empty."

Tremors of the tragedy continue to be felt across South Korea. In the immediate aftermath, the country of 50 million was stricken by grief and shame. South Koreans take pride in their quick rise from postwar poverty in the 1950s to a thriving, modern nation, and a routine ferry trip going so horribly wrong echoed what they thought was a bygone era.

Citizens poured out vitriol toward the government for what they saw as a bumbling, ineffective rescue effort, and at Cheonghaejin Marine, the company that operated the Sewol, accusing it of failing to properly train its crew in how to conduct an evacuation and of overloading the ferry.

As the recovery effort and political fallout dragged on, anger turned to exhaustion and recrimination. Right-wing activists accused bereaved families of exploiting the tragedy to try to seize power for the liberal opposition. When some families called a hunger strike to pressure the government for a special investigation of the sinking, far-right activists staged a counter-protest, gorging on pizza and fried chicken in front of the families.

In Seoul's Gwanghwamun Square, the symbolic center of the capital, victims' families and right-wing activists continue to have dueling sit-in sites. The families press for a thorough investigation while the other side tells them to go home and let the nation move past the disaster.

Though the Sewol sank near Jindo, Ansan quickly became a focal point of the tragedy, as most of the passengers were students and teachers from Da-young's high school. The government set up a memorial, and people came from across the country to pay respects. For months, the town's normally quiet streets were thronged with mourners.

Quiet has returned, but families continue to grieve. Some parents say they still can't move on.

"They feel like going back to normal would be like betraying their children's memories," said Choi Ho-seon, a lecturer in psychology at Yeungnam University who has counseled victims' families.

The parliament passed a law mandating the formation of an investigative panel to look into the sinking, but the inquiry has yet to begin, held back by infighting over the committee's budget and personnel.

Kim contends that the study could prevent another tragedy.

"Our country has had lots of these accidents throughout our history. They keep happening because we never properly investigated them and figured out what caused them," says Kim, who has participated in many of the Seoul protests.

The Sewol left the port city of Incheon on the evening of April 15. The next morning, the crew sent out distress signals. The ferry was running behind schedule, outside its normal route, and listed after taking a sharp, sudden turn.

Questions remain, such as why only 172 of the more than 470 people aboard were rescued, how the operating company was licensed to leave port with an unsafe vessel, and why the captain wasn't at the helm when the ferry began listing.

The captain and crew were harshly criticized for being the first off the ship and for reportedly telling passengers to remain in their seats. In November, Capt. Lee Joon-seok was sentenced to 36 years in prison; 14 lower-ranking crew members received sentences of nine to 25 years.

A committee of bereaved families protested the sentences, calling them too light and demanding the death penalty for the captain.

Da-young's mother, Jeong Jeong-hee, spends much of her time nowadays with other moms near the government memorial in Ansan.

The memorial hall smells of carnations and is dominated by hundreds of funeral portraits, mostly of fresh-faced high school students. In an adjacent building, Jeong sits cross-legged on the floor at a table with several other mothers, making embroidered brooches with floral patterns and the numbers "4.16," the date of the sinking. The mothers give the brooches away with the hope that people will pin them to their lapels or handbags.

"This is a kind of healing," Jeong, 46, says while sewing. The handiwork, she explains, focuses the mothers' minds on something other than their lost children.

"We've all been through the same ordeal," she says. "We lean on each other."

Since he rushed from his office at a packaging company that morning last April, Kim hasn't returned to work. For now, the family is living off the pension he received when he left his job, as well as unemployment benefits, which are set to run out soon.

Jeong hasn't had steady work since she lost her job at a factory in the economic downturn of 2008. Fortunately, Kim has a close and long-standing relationship with their landlord, who allows the family to stay in their cramped, three-bedroom apartment rent-free.

Also, South Korea's Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries announced April 1 that families who had lost children would receive $378,000 in government compensation, and that the millions of dollars that were donated by the public after the sinking would be divvied up, with each family receiving about $200,000.

The family has kept Da-young's bedroom unchanged: Her pressed school uniform hangs from a hook beneath bright fluorescent lights. The desk where she did her homework sits in front of a large window, covered by blinds with images of female Disney characters beneath the word "Princess."

Da-young was president of her class, and medals and certificates she earned for academic and extracurricular achievements are displayed on a mantle.

"She wanted to be a doctor," Kim says, standing in Da-young's room. "The meaning of my life was to put all my energy into raising her, into seeing her bloom like a flower."

Da-young regularly wrote in a diary, her dad says. In an entry dated less than two months before her death, she jotted down her thoughts about having been born to parents who weren't well off.

"I'll have to work and make a living through my own effort. I'll have to buy my own car, get married," she wrote. "I'll need to get into a good school so I don't fall behind. It's not too late."

Borowiec is a special correspondent.

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