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‘The country failed’: S. Korea ferry victims’ families 10 years on

Parents who lost their children in the Sewol ferry disaster 10 years ago say they still can't move on
Parents who lost their children in the Sewol ferry disaster 10 years ago say they still can't move on - Copyright AFP Anthony WALLACE
Parents who lost their children in the Sewol ferry disaster 10 years ago say they still can't move on - Copyright AFP Anthony WALLACE
Hailey JO

Ten years ago Tuesday, an overloaded South Korean ferry capsized and sank, killing hundreds of schoolchildren who had been ordered to stay in their cabins even as the captain evacuated.

The accident and botched rescue triggered nationwide fury. The ship’s “incompetent” crew were jailed, the wreckage of the Sewol ferry lifted, and South Korea’s then-president Park Geun-hye impeached, in part over her disastrous mishandling of the accident.

But the families of victims say they still can’t move on:

‘It’s more painful now’

Park Jeong-hwa said her daughter Cho Eun-jung wanted to be a pharmacist and loved celebrating special occasions with her family.

“Eun-jung always remembered my birthday and prepared a cake with candles,” she told AFP. “Since she left us, we stopped celebrating our birthdays or any other special occasions because it revives those memories too much.”

People tell her that after 10 years, she should move on.

“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.”

‘A very short life’

Kim Jong-gi’s youngest daughter, Kim Soo-jin, died when she was just 18.

“The Sewol ferry disaster took away her life so abruptly. I feel incredibly sorry that she was only able to live a very short life,” he told AFP.

A decade on, he sees other children her age all grown up, he feels “envious” of them.

“I remember how she was when she was little, but I also keep imagining the sight of my daughter grown into an adult and achieving her dreams,” he told AFP.

He last spoke to her when he dropped her off at school before the school trip — when her class would take the ill-fated ferry.

“We arrived at the school, I handed her bag to her as I waved goodbye, wishing her a good trip on the excursion. That was the last time.”

A friend who survived

Kim Soon-gil’s daughter Jin Yun-hee who died on the Sewol ferry had always dreamed of being an accountant, knowing her family could use the extra financial support.

A close friend of hers who was also on the boat but survived now works in an accounting firm, Ki said.

“I always went to pick her up from school,” she told AFP. 

“On our way back home, I used to say: ‘let me carry your heavy bag,’ but my daughter insisted on carrying it all the way home.”

‘Escaped punishment’ 

Kim Jong-gi said at a press conference in Seoul that key things the victims’ families want to know have not emerged, despite official investigations.

“Even the cause of the sinking has not been clearly revealed,” he said adding that too many people involved at every level in the botched response had not been properly held to account.

“What worries us is that the Sewol ferry disaster is being wiped out even before all truths are brought to light,” he said.

“The country failed to fulfil its responsibility and neglected both search and rescue. It concealed the truth and focused only on monitoring and controlling the victims.”

Itaewon

When more than 150 mostly young people were killed in a crowd crush at a Halloween celebration in Seoul’s Itaewon district in 2022, many of the Sewol ferry disaster victims’ families felt there were parallels between the two accidents.

How the country’s leadership handled both accidents left a lot to be desired, said Lee Tae-ho, an activist who chairs the April 16 Coalition on the Sewol Ferry Disaster.

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration “has not been cooperative at all on revealing the truth about the disasters,” he said.

Many South Koreans believe accidents such as Sewol and Itaewon are effectively “wrongdoings committed by the state,” said pastor Park Seung-ryul of the April 16 Coalition.

“Citizens’ demands are clear. The government must acknowledge its mistakes and apologise,” Park said.

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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