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South Korea mourns 10th anniversary of ferry disaster

Yellow ribbons are displayed near the main gates at a port in South Jeolla Province, near where the salvaged Sewol ferry sits
Yellow ribbons are displayed near the main gates at a port in South Jeolla Province, near where the salvaged Sewol ferry sits - Copyright AFP ANTHONY WALLACE
Yellow ribbons are displayed near the main gates at a port in South Jeolla Province, near where the salvaged Sewol ferry sits - Copyright AFP ANTHONY WALLACE

South Korea on Tuesday marked the 10th anniversary of the country’s worst-ever maritime disaster, when hundreds of schoolchildren died after the overloaded Sewol ferry capsized and sank.

The disaster and botched rescue efforts dealt a crushing blow to then-president Park Geun-hye, who was eventually impeached in 2017, and the tragedy remains divisive and politically sensitive in South Korea even now.

A Coast Guard vessel took some of the victims’ families to the site of the sinking early Tuesday for a special ceremony.

At the site off South Korea’s south coast — marked by a yellow buoy — the families called out the names of the deceased and threw flowers into the water, followed by a moment of silence.

“People say: ‘It’s been 10 years, bury it (in your memory). Otherwise how can you move on?'” Park Jeong-hwa, who lost her daughter Cho Eun-jung to the tragedy, said ahead of the Tuesday anniversary.

“I thought I was going to be able to do it, thinking maybe after 10 years, the pain would fade a bit. But instead, it’s even more painful now. I want to hear her voice badly so that I don’t forget. 

“There’s this longing and emptiness.”

President Yoon Suk Yeol, whose party was dealt a crushing defeat in parliamentary elections last week, offered his condolences to the families of victims at a Tuesday cabinet meeting.

“Even though 10 years have passed, the events of April 16, 2014, remain vivid in my memory,” he said. 

“I pray for the repose of the unfortunate victims and once again extend my deepest condolences to the bereaved families.”

South Korea’s rapid transformation from a war-torn country to Asia’s fourth-largest economy and a global cultural powerhouse is a source of national pride.

But a series of preventable disasters — from the Sewol ferry to the 2022 Itaewon Halloween crowd crush, which killed more than 150 mostly young people — has shaken public confidence in authorities.

Last year, a 20-year-old marine died after he was swept away while doing relief work during major floods, with reports saying he had never been given a life jacket by the authorities.

Experts say that the current government’s handling of the Itaewon disaster and the marine’s death — including the president’s vetoing of a bill that would have allowed a special investigation into the Seoul crowd crush — proved an electoral liability.

Opposition leader Lee Jae-myung slammed what he described as government failures leading to loss of life.

“South Korea had to change after the Sewol ferry disaster. Unfortunately, a society of ‘every man for himself’ re-emerged, leading to the loss of precious lives in Itaewon… and the (late) marine,” he said in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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