Three years have passed, the president has been impeached, and the Sewol ferry has finally been raised from the cold depths of the Yellow Sea.
On April 16, 2014, the Sewol sank off the southwest coast of South Korea, drowning 304 people out of the 476 on board. Most of the victims were students from a single high school—Danwon High School in Ansan City—on a junior year field trip to Jeju Island. The nation watched live updates in horror for days and nights as rescue missions were continuously delayed and victims came back in the hundreds, pale and lifeless. Television networks canceled programs and every news update reported yet more numbers of people confirmed to be dead. The ferry sank deeper. South Korea mourned.
Considered one of the most traumatic events in modern South Korean history, the Sewol tragedy has become a national symbol of collusion between regulators and industry, immoral journalism, and government incapacity in South Korea these last three years. Rescue procedures during the sinking were noticeably haphazard, slow, and frustrating. Half of the 172 survivors were rescued in unofficial fishing and commercial boats in the initial hour after the ferry capsized—none were saved after that. Investigations revealed the negligence of crew members, lack of leadership among government officials and the Coast Guard, and that the ferry had been carrying three times as much cargo as it was supposed to. Families and loved ones demanded accountability, and protests have since continued.
Sewol and Park’s Impeachment Proceedings
In recent months, the yellow ribbon used as the icon of the Sewol ferry movement has come to form the leading front of protests demanding the impeachment of now ex-President Park Geun-hye. The protests, the largest since South Korea’s democratization movement in the 1980s, continued for around six weeks until Park’s eventual indictment this past March.
Park’s scandal in October 2016 regarding her corrupt relationship with confidant Choi Soon-sil sparked initial protests for her impeachment. News reports revealed that Choi used her close relationship with Park as leverage to seek billions of dollars from conglomerates, and was allegedly involved in Park’s policy decisions despite being outside of the government. This spark was all that South Korean citizens needed to react to the slew of evidence of Park’s incompetence since she came into office. The biggest and most emotional incident that citizens cited, which has since become emblematic of Park’s inability as president, was the sinking of the Sewol in 2014. Citizens accused Park of neglecting her duties while hundreds of citizens died, and the ‘seven hours’ of Park’s absence on the day that the Sewol capsized became a buzzword in South Korean news and media.
Yellow Ribbons, Democracy, and Healing
Although the Sewol movement played a large part in motivating protests and providing a symbolic basis for Park’s impeachment proceedings, the Constitutional Court of Korea explained in its verdict that the Choi Soon-sil scandal—not the Sewol ferry incident—was the ground on which Park is to be impeached. Thus, although Park’s impeachment was a victory for the loved ones of Sewol’s victims, accountability for the incident was neither allocated nor taken by the federal government, yet again.
Families and loved ones continue to protest in tents in front of the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential compound, where yellow ribbons are hung in remembrance, pictures of young high school students hang, and candles are lit in mourning. They demand a government investigation committee to thoroughly reveal the truth concerning the Sewol. They call for government officials to be held accountable for poor handling of the rescue procedures. The movement has not always had the attention it currently has in South Korean media—before the impeachment protests, the Sewol incident was disappearing into the nation’s peripheral vision, and yellow ribbons carried the stigma of dwelling on events that had passed.
In light of Park’s impeachment and the raising of the ferry off the cold ocean floor, the Sewol ferry movement has come to a peak. The South Korean government has the responsibility to give loved ones what they desire by investigating the ferry and retrieving the remaining bodies with as little harm done to them as possible. It is time for the families to receive the apologies they deserve. It is time for their delayed healing to finally begin.