Every human being is different in many ways, but we are same in one respect – our lives comes to an end under the name of death. However, the reason why people do not panic about this unfortunate truth is because they have an underlying belief that death will not come unless they get old. Sadly, this belief did not come true on April 16, 2014, when Sewol Ferry carrying about 400 passengers sank below the cold water of Jindo, leaving 304 people dead. April 16, 2015, will be the one-year anniversary of the Sewol Ferry incident, and The Granite Tower (GT) is attentively and whole-heartedly writing to commemorate the deceased, and to say “It shall not be forgotten.”
The tragedy of Sewol Ferry was an incident that happened on April 16, 2014, when so many lives were lost, and the entire nation bemoaned the tragic situation. So-called accidents are unexpected, at least for people who are not directly related to the problem. However, more shocking than the unexpected is the expected that one refused to prepare for, which the responsible people of this tragedy failed to do. Regulations were alleviated, the importance of restrictions was undervalued, and all the work was linked to self interest, rather than common interest. Looking at past cases, the same applies to the collapse of Sampung department store in 1995, the collapse of Seongsu bridge in 1994, the death of five students in Taean marine camp in 2013, and countless other incidents that made us ask the question: “Are we safe here in Korea?”
The answer to that question is, “No,” at least not yet. The Sewol Ferry incident, and the reaction entailed reflects the numerous problems that the nation possesses. The dark side of our society has been revealed, leaving citizes, and families of the deceased furious about this injustice. The government, the press, various safety institutions, and enterprises have been the target of criticism. However, the most important matter of what caused the boat to sink has not been entirely uncovered. After the incident, what has been the main controversy, and what has happened to the Korean society?
The Special Law
The people of Korea have clearly recognized that the society they live in is surrounded by unknown dangers and have taken actions to make sure that none of them become victims again. For example, the family of the deceased, mostly consisted parents of Danwon High School students that died inside the ship, has worked hard to establish a special law that can activate an investigation into finding out the truth about the incident. The general public has also encouraged such move by participating in a signature-seeking campaign.
On November 7, 2014, the National Assembly passed the Sewol Ferry special law, which was established with the objective of probing the underlying truth of the incident and constructing a safer society. Claims postulated by the families of Sewol Ferry incident’s victims are as follows: first, to set up a special committee that is capable of independently carrying in-depth investigations on the accident. Second, it was made evident that in this process the special committee should be endowed with the authority to investigate and the right to accuse and properly punish the guilty. Lastly, the special committee should recommend the establishment and continuous operation of preventative measures to stop another tragic accident.
The essence of the special law was purely about truth ascertainment. Unfortunately, its pure intention was wrongly portrayed to the public as press reports emphasized compensation issues, allowing special admissions to university to the survivors and relatives of Sewol Ferry victims, and appointing the deceased as national Martyrs. However, compensation issues did not take a big portion of the stated law and the latter two issues were not included in the law in the first place.
The government clearly has the responsibility to compensate for victims’ losses. It is the nation’s fault that they approved the Sewol Ferry’s operation before the accident. Also, after the incident, the government poorly handled the problem as it is shown in the case when control towers were absent. Thus, compensation has to be offered to victims, not in the form of money or exceptional endowments, but in ways that help them seek the truth.
Salvaging of the Sunken Sewol Ferry
▲ Two different ways in which Sewol Ferry can be salvaged. Provided by JTBC.
The issue of whether or not to salvage the sunken Sewol Ferry is another main concern after the incident. There are still nine missing people that have not been found inside the Sewol Ferry. With remaining missing people on board, the government has declared that they would no longer engage in search operations as of November 11, 2014, and government-wide organizations in charge of rescue operations withdrew from Jindo. The families of victims maintain that Sewol Ferry has to be recovered, not only to find the corpses of those nine people and bring them back to their families, but also to discover evidences on the ship that might provide direct explanation of its sinking.
Opposed to that, the government is not receptive to the idea of salvaging the ship. They merely stick to their theoretical reasoning, stating that the area is extremely dangerous and too expensive for the salvaging work to be completed. Because of that, government officials emphasize that recovery work should be taken with care based on comprehensive evaluation of technical aspects, opinions of professionals, and families of the deceased. They have composed a Task Force (TF) that will be in charge of the management of the ship.
How the Sewol Ferry will be handled remains the big issue here. The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries (MOF) mainly have two considerations: disposing of the ferry or putting it on display after salvaging, or simply maintaining the status-quo while constructing a marine memorial park that would commemorate the tragedy. The MOF is putting more focus on the latter option, on the premise that nine missing people were yet to be found. However, this is not a choice that the general public, or most importantly, the families of the deceased, demand.
Up until now, a concrete decision on whether or not to salvage the Sewol Ferry has still not been determined. There are suspicions that the government is not as responsive to the act of salvaging because some kind of secrets may be revealed, but that is a dangerous assumption to make, since there is no clear evidence. The main concern is that the demand of the victims’ families does not seem to coincide with what the government is claiming to be realistically and technically possible. To ensure that the nine remaining bodies are kept inside the ship, and that evidence of the cause stay intact, people want the ship to be recovered without being divided into pieces. However, the government’s position is that since the Sewol Ferry must have been corroded underwater for a year, it is inevitable that the ship must be divided into parts in order to address efficiency and safety concerns. The Sewol Ferry disaster has to be managed in some way or another, which means that prudent decisions have to be made so that there will be progress with this situation. On behalf of the citizens and families of the deceased, the right choice is expected to be made.
▲ Chang Young Seung, an activist of the Sewol Ferry incident, and the representative of Dream-Come-True Network. Photographed by Lee Ji-hoon.
So, people question, “What has changed since the Sewol Ferry incident?” Chang Young Seung, an activist of Sewol Ferry incident and the representative of Dream-Come-True Network, says that not much has changed since the Sewol Ferry, at least regarding subjects that should bear responsibility. The government and enterprises are still caught up in their interest-oriented relationship, while the press is just too busy cleaning up the dirty work they are doing.
However, there are some positive movements out there. In the field of medicine, an area called disaster medicine is being discussed with attention, as the Korean medical circle has realized the need for a more constructive system to cope with disasters prudently. In fact, Korea University Ansan Hospital (KUAH) opened symposiums discussing strategic ways of reacting to nation-wide disasters and research methods to prevent disasters. Thus, specific matters such as the Ebola virus, disasters caused by chemicals in industrial plants, effective psychological treatments for survivors of disasters, and other issues were discussed.
The utmost important change, however, is the people’s minds. Through the incident, people have not only become openly cautious about possible dangers in Korean society, but they have also come together to pay attention to the preciousness of individual lives. In fact, Chang himself was a person who made a new goal in response to the incident. He focused on the unaccomplished dreams of Danwon High School students who died in Sewol Ferry. The exhibition of Park Ye Seul, who dreamed of becoming a designer, was held at Chang’s Seochon Gallery to show that their dreams mattered as well and that she did not die in vain.
The hardware of our society such as government policies, laws, and other social structures take a long time to change. However, the software of our society, the people, are the most voluntary ones, and often the ones that make the most beautiful transformations. Deeply inspired by the Sewol Ferry incident, Chang has decided to do something that pays attention to the unachieved dreams of teens. “While doing signature-seeking campaigns and demonstrating at Gwanghwamun, I met a lot of people who shared the same inspiration,” Chang mentioned in the interview. The Sewol Ferry incident was a groundbreaking incident that brought together people with hopes of changing our society.
Chang and his colleagues are currently working under civic group, Dream-Come-True Network, also called Kkumyirum network in Korean. The precious lives that were lost inside the ship all had important dreams that died out before they could bloom. Chang profoundly pitied its loss, and decided to turn his attention to his surroundings, where he found many hopeful teens wanting to achieve their dreams, but deficient of opportunities. Surely, this network was formed as a positive reaction to the Sewol Ferry incident, but to maintain its genuine intent, Chang made it clear that Dream-Come-True Network will not engage in any activities related Sewol Ferry incident because it can become politically controversial.
The Dream-Come-True Network aims to formulate a basis on which Korean youth can find their dreams through either participating in or seeing cultural activities such as exhibitions and performances. The network plans to hold more regular exhibitions at Seochon Gallery, which Chang owns, and seeks to cooperate with hopeful teens in making valuable cultural content. Actually, the network is cooperating with regional Youth film club to hold youth film festival. Their biggest project is to establish dreamcome- true high school, which is an arts school that highly appreciates and tries to understand the youth’s future desires.
▲ Dream-Come-True Network helps achieve the dreams of hopeful Korean youth. Provided by dreamcometrue.kr.
At this point, when nearly a year has passed since the Sewol Ferry sank, the people of Korea, and the nation itself cannot proudly claim that we have overcome it with justice and honesty. In fact, hardly anything has changed because the truth has not been revealed. For this so-called truth to be found with the honest answers of the government and responsible attitudes of companies, it might take a long time, or it might not happen at all. In the meanwhile, what people can do is, paying attention to the little movements that are happening around us. People can listen to the stories of the deceased and wholeheartedly commemorate their tragic deaths. What shall not be forgotten is never forgotten, and it is those lasting memories that become the fuse of change.
▲ The fate of Sewol Ferry is in our hands. We remember, and we act on behalf of our faith.An illustration by Chon Seung il.