Parents of students lost on South Korea ferry press for investigation

Family members of the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol stage a rally in front of the National Assembly in Seoul on July 22, demanding that lawmakers authorize an investigation into the cause of the tragedy.
(Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

Lee Su-ha has been camped on the steps of South Korea’s parliament for more than a week. He has stopped eating and dropped 18 pounds. His hunger strike will continue, he says, until legislators authorize a special committee to investigate the reasons his 16-year-old son perished.

“We just want to know why our kids died,” said Lee, father to one of the hundreds of students killed in the sinking of the Sewol ferry in April. “All we want is for the truth to be verified, to know what really happened so this type of accident can be prevented in the future.”

Lee and more than a dozen other parents of youths lost on the Sewol are pressing for passage of legislation that would mandate an investigation into the causes of the sinking by a committee of government officials and private-sector experts. It would also authorize the panel to make recommendations to improve safety standards at government agencies.

Many questions remain unanswered. How did the ferry get permission to leave port when it was drastically overloaded? Why did it travel outside of its normal route? What caused the ship to lose balance and capsize? And perhaps most pressing, why were only 172 of the ferry’s 476 passengers rescued?


Discussion of the proposed legislation resumed in parliament this week, after having been on hold since Thursday. So far, passage has been held up by disagreements among opposition and ruling-party politicians over who would be named to the committee and the limits of its investigative authority.

Last week, victims’ relatives delivered to parliament a petition with 3.5 million signatures calling for passage of the legislation.

Since July 12, Lee and other parents along with some supporters have been posted outside the National Assembly. They sleep each night on mats in the hot, open air. In a tentative bit of good fortune for them, South Korea’s seasonal monsoon rains have held off thus far this year, but are forecast to begin later this week, promising to bring daily downpours and extreme humidity.

On the ground next to the parents, beside cases of bottled water, are cans of insect repellent, meant to ward off the mosquitoes that plague any outdoor summer gathering in Seoul.

Kim Myung-lim has not returned to her job as a real estate agent since the Sewol went down.

“I can’t readjust to life since losing my daughter,” Kim said, sitting cross-legged, leaning against the legislature’s concrete wall, taking slow, deep breaths to hold back tears. Her daughter was also a 16-year-old Danwon High School student, on a field trip with classmates and teachers to the holiday island of Jeju.

“My child didn’t die from illness or anything natural; she died because some people made very bad decisions,” she said. “We need the law to find the real truth. I can’t get back to normal life until I know that.”

Efforts to help families recover from the trauma of the losses are expected to take years. In Ansan, the suburb of Seoul where many of the victims live and studied, a pair of prominent psychiatrists are leading a project that will have experts and volunteers live with and provide counseling to the bereaved families for up to five years. The psychiatrists are arguing that without sustained counseling, the victims’ families will be at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder for an extended period.

A number of civic groups are participating in the project, and plan to set up a house where families can share and document their experiences.

South Korea is still, to an extent, a country in mourning. Ten bodies have not been recovered, and search efforts continue at the site of the Sewol’s sinking.

The captain and crew are on trial, facing charges of murder and negligence causing death. Evidence is still being presented, and the defendants have pleaded not guilty. Their legal representatives have argued that rescuing passengers was the responsibility of the Coast Guard, and that the unsafe condition of the ship was the fault of its operator, Cheonghaejin Marine.

On Monday, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency said a badly decomposed body found last month in a field surrounded by liquor bottles was believed to be that of Cheonghaejin owner Yoo Byeong-eun. Yoo had been wanted for questioning and a reward was offered for information leading to his capture.

Some of the parents’ raw emotion is being channeled into calls of support for the legislation under consideration in parliament. A demonstration was held in central Seoul on Saturday evening calling for the measure’s passage. Media estimated that about 5,000 supporters turned out, many carrying candles or wearing yellow ribbons in remembrance of those lost.

Shortly after the sinking, with the nation still deep in shock and grief, a sign was put up over the main entrance at Seoul City Hall reading “We’re sorry,” an expression of contrition for the accident.

That has since been replaced with a sign that reads, “To the very last person,” a reference to the effort to recover all bodies.

Borowiec is a special correspondent.