SEOUL: South Koreans mark the first anniversary this week of the Sewol ferry disaster which scarred the national psyche and left a lasting legacy of bitterness, mistrust and division.
For the relatives of the 304 victims, especially the families of the 250 high school children who died, the past 12 months have done little to numb the pain and grief — or the anger.
“Don’t you ever say it has already been a year. Don’t you ever say we should move on. We are still living that day,” said Lee Keum-Hui, who lost her 16-year-old daughter when the Sewol went down on April 16.
For Lee’s family, the past year has been especially wrenching, as her daughter was one of the nine victims whose bodies were never recovered — depriving them of the closure of a funeral.
In deeply Confucian South Korea, a proper funeral is essential to show respect for the dead and allow their souls to rest in peace.
These days much of Lee’s time is spent petitioning or taking part in protests with her husband to push the government to bring the 6,825-tonne vessel to the surface.
“My whole family is broken apart… all we feel now is despair,” Lee said.
The Sewol was carrying 476 people when it sank off the country’s southwest.
The shock accident — which plunged the whole nation into a months-long period of intense mourning — was largely blamed on the ship’s illegal redesign and overloading.
But it also laid bare deeper-rooted problems of corruption, lax safety standards and regulatory failings attributed to the country’s relentless push for economic growth.
Hopes that the tragedy would prompt an overhaul that would tackle issues like unhealthy ties between businesses and regulators have largely been dashed.
“We have been out on the street for the past year, trying everything we can… but nothing has changed,” said Yoo Kyung-Geun, who lost his teenage daughter on the ferry.
Families and their supporters have repeatedly staged street protests and sit-ins, urging President Park Geun-Hye to deliver on her promise of a thorough, independent inquiry and to salvage the ship.
After months of political bickering, Seoul lawmakers finally passed a bill in November creating a 17-member committee to probe the disaster.
But relatives say the government is seeking to influence the outcome by appointing officials to key committee posts.
“It’s bad enough that we haven’t even been able to start the probe a year after the accident,” said Lee Suk-Tae, the committee chairman nominated by the families.
‘Last chance for change’
“I know public interest may be fading … but this may be the last chance to reinvent our nation into a safer one,” Lee said.
President Park’s approval ratings have only recently started to recover after plummeting in the wake of the disaster amid severe criticism of the official emergency response.
The main focus of the initial outrage was the captain and crew, most of whom fled the ship while hundreds remained trapped on board.
Captain Lee Jun-Seok and 14 of his surviving crew were handed jail terms ranging from five to 36 years in November, with Lee convicted of gross negligence and dereliction of duty.
The tragedy not only scarred the victims’ families but also the survivors, including the 75 students who have faced the impossible challenge of returning to a high school haunted by the absence of 250 dead classmates.
Many adult survivors have also found it hard to resume a normal life, displaying clear symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that, in some cases, have resulted in lost jobs and divorce.
Kim Dong-Soo, a truck driver who was lauded for rescuing around a dozen teenagers from the sinking ship, slit his wrists in a failed suicide attempt last month.
“Whenever I close my eyes or even look at a window, I still see the faces of the children trapped inside the ship,” Kim told reporters from his hospital bed.
“People think I’m over it because I look okay physically… but I’m never over it,” he said.
The victims’ families plan to mark the anniversary with a series of candlelight vigils and more protests to demand a truly independent probe and the raising of the sunken vessel.