Sewol Memorial in Seoul
Apr. 16, 2015
South Koreans have taken time to reflect on a tragedy that shook their nation. On April 16th last year, the ferry Sewol capsized off the southern coast in one of the nation's worst accidents in decades. 295 people died and 9 others are still listed as missing. Most of the victims were high school students on a school trip.
Investigators cite several reasons for the accident and the large loss of life, including overloading and not properly securing cargo, and the failure of captain and crew to evacuate passengers.
The ferry's captain was also sentenced to 36 years in prison for gross negligence for abandoning passengers. But, prosecutors in a second trial called for the death penalty.
President Park made a public apology 13 days after the sinking, saying the government had mishandled the incident. The accident raised doubts about safety and security in South Korea. And it pushed the government to call for change.
NHK WORLD's Kim Chan-ju visited a memorial to the victims in Seoul.
Kim: People came to Seoul Plaza in the heart of the capital to mark the anniversary. People remembered the victims by lighting candles and writing messages of condolence. Others messages demand that the government raise the ship so a full investigation can be done. The president has promised she would try to do that as soon as possible.
Beppu: How has this past year been for South Koreans?
Kim: It's been pretty hard. The ferry sinking shocked people across the country. Many watched the vessel go down live on television. And they can't forget those images. After the accident, South Korea fell into a malaise, as consumer spending slumped and many events such as concerts and festivals were canceled. People struggled to come to terms with the loss of so many lives, especially as so many of them were young people. The sheer number of people who have attended memorials shows that the pain is still palpable.
NHK WORLD's Jihae Hwang looked at how some families of the victims have been trying to cope with this tragedy. She spoke to one grieving mother, Park Un-hee, who lost her second daughter, Ye-un, in the disaster.
Ye-un was on the ferry for a high school trip. Her body was found 10 days later. Her dream was to become a singer, and she regularly made a 4-hour roundtrip to music lessons. "She faced many difficulties in making her dreams come true," her mother remembers. "Once in a while she felt desperate, but she tried her best to pursue her dreams. The accident put an end to everything."
Park says after the disaster she stayed at home to avoid people. Later she thought about how her daughter would feel if she didn't take any action. She began to work with other bereaved families and their supporters, who passed on lessons from the disaster. "What we, the bereaved families, really want is the truth of the accident to be revealed," she says. "And we strongly hope this country will become safer, changing from the way it was when the accident happened."
Park began to worry that memories of the disaster were fading away. "I felt as if I was living in another country," she says. "I felt alienated, like I was left behind by a group trip." She found a campaign to keep memories of the disaster alive. She invited children's book writers to join a project called "The Sewol Ferry Memorial Wall." They asked bereaved families to draw pictures and write messages on small tiles. Park poured her sorrow into her own message, writing "the spring has come without you".
Members of the campaign carried all 5,000 tiles to the port in Jindo, which is the closest port to the site of the accident. Bereaved families and people across the country created their own tiles, which were installed one by one at the edge of the port.
On the day before the one year anniversary, Park and the families of victims visited the site to pay their respects to the victims. "Many people seem to have put the tragedy behind them," Park says. "Others look like they have forgotten about it. I want as many people as possible to remember the disaster."
NHK WORLD's Lim Hye-jun took a look at the safety measures South Korean leaders have implemented, and how they have left many feeling the government isn't going far enough.
The government has designated April 16th National Safety Day, as part of ongoing efforts to regain public trust. Officials say they'll improve safety measures over the course of 5 years and they're paying 25 billion dollars to put it all in place.
In the months after the disaster, authorities disbanded the Coast Guard, and the new Ministry of Public Safety and Security took over. One goal of the initiative is to boost emergency response. Last week, 200 people took part in a drill held by the Ministry and a private ship company. Rescuers boarded the craft and lead passengers to safety.
More schools are looking to improve safety education, both for children and adults. Some now teach safety skills to students and their parents. "We must remain conscious of safety both at home and at school. Teachers, parents, and everyone need to learn more about safety," says Kim Hee-soon, Principal of Neulpureun Elementary School.
But a recent poll shows the vast majority of South Koreans feel these measures don't reach far enough. After the accident, transportation officials banned passengers from standing on highway buses, but a year on, the rules are being relaxed. Even if all seats are taken on a bus, more passengers are allowed to board.
In February, security camera footage was released showing two pedestrians injured by a collapsing sidewalk. Construction work on a nearby building triggered the cave-in, one of many reported over the past year.
Bae Kyu-han, a professor as Kookmin University, says society focused on economic growth at the expense of safety. "South Koreans have thought it is wasteful to focus on safety, he says. "Accidents seem unlikely to happen. But now they should see the importance of such measures."
South Korea's society has been shaken by the unprecedented disaster. People continue to face the challenge of taking its lessons to heart, and keeping safety in mind.
Shibuya: Chan-ju, you've watched the changes over the past year. Are South Koreans more conscious of safety since this accident?
Kim: An increasing number of them say they want to teach younger generations to have a greater awareness of safety. However, this would require something of a cultural shift. South Koreans have put priority on speed and efficiency instead of slow, steady progress. President Park Geun-hye is calling for people to work together to build a safer nation. But her approval rating hasn't really recovered from the fall it took following the accident. She'll need to do even more to convince South Koreans she's the right leader to implement these changes.
Beppu: Chan-ju, you mentioned Park's approval rating. How do the families of the victims feel about her as president?
Kim: Well, they've been critical of Park, and they felt more anger today. They've been pushing the President to commit to raising the Sewol so a full investigation can be carried out. But Park only said she'll take the "necessary measures to raise the ship as soon as possible." The families want her to clarify when she plans to do that. The government says the operation would cost more than 80 million dollars. But the families of the victims and the missing say it must be done. They stress that raising the vessel is vital to searching for the missing, and to further the investigation. And some want the ferry to be put on display as part of the effort to pass down the lessons learned from this tragedy.