Families reject terms for new Sewol deal

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Families reject terms for new Sewol deal


Relatives of the Sewol victims leave the Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday night after voting down the terms of the special Sewol law on which the floor leaders of the two major parties agreed. [NEWS1]

In a vote Wednesday night, the relatives of the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster refused to endorse an agreement on a special Sewol law reached by the ruling and opposition parties, dealing a severe blow to the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD).

The outcome is a particular setback for its interim Chairwoman Park Young-sun, who took part in the negotiations with the Saenuri Party on behalf of the families.

Their disapproval of the pact has raised the prospect of further political paralysis. NPAD lawmakers remain uncertain over what direction to take next, while the ruling party has made it clear that it will not return to the negotiating table.

The relatives disapproved of a second agreement reached by Park Young-sun and her Saenuri counterpart Lee Wan-koo on the specifics of the special law, voting 132 to 30.

Of the 176 family members who cast votes, 132 said they were in favor of the original demand advocated by the relatives, which would empower a fact-finding committee with the authority to investigate and indict suspects, while just 30 families supported the bipartisan deal that was reached on Tuesday.

Fourteen families abstained from voting.

“We just wish to build a safer Korea that respects the lives of its people through an in-depth and independent investigation into the April 16 sinking with the special law,” an association for the families said in a statement released shortly after the vote.

“In order to do that, empowering a fact-finding committee with the authority to investigate and indict suspects is essential.”

The outcome of Wednesday night’s vote came as both a surprise and an embarrassment to the main opposition, which has essentially represented the interests of the families in the negotiations. Most of those affected by the Sewol disaster do not trust the Saenuri’s commitment to lay out the truth behind the sinking and the government’s botched rescue attempts.

This marks the second time the relatives have rejected a bipartisan deal on the law.

Before the vote, Park, who is also the NPAD floor leader, and other senior party lawmakers frantically attempted to persuade them to change their minds, going so far as to ask for “forgiveness” for the opposition’s shortcomings on the agreement.

However, their efforts held little sway.

Under Tuesday’s agreement, the Saenuri Party will be allowed to choose two members of a seven-member committee to recommend two candidates for a special prosecutor to investigate the tragedy, but only after its selections are approved by the relatives of the Sewol victims and the main opposition.

The concession on the part of the Saenuri was beyond the first agreement it reached with the main opposition on Aug. 11, in which it could independently make its own selections. Rep. Park reneged on that deal four days later.

As it stands, the committee will choose two candidates for a special prosecutor to investigate the cause of the April 16 sinking, which left more than 300 people dead, mostly high school students.

President Park Geun-hye will make the final choice on who will serve as the special prosecutor.

The families, however, object to the Saenuri having any say in the choice of candidates for the recommendation committee.

The ruling party’s behavior during a parliamentary audit into the sinking over the past few months has only added to their suspicion and lack of trust.

While the relatives wanted all government officials who could have contributed to the heavy death toll in the sinking to be called in for a parliamentary audit, the Saenuri and the NAPD remained at odds over whether to summon senior Blue House staff members, including Chief of Staff Kim Ki-choon.

Remarks by one Saenuri lawmaker regarding the families staging a sit-in protest in front of the National Assembly, also did the party no favors: Rep. Kim Tae-heum said the relatives looked like homeless people.

With the families’ opposition to the recent agreement apparent, the NPAD’s next step is uncertain, especially because its own lawmakers remain divided on how to resolve the matter.

While the Saenuri and Rep. Park made it clear that there will be no additional discussions to revise the agreement on Tuesday, a few hawkish opposition lawmakers have called for a new round of talks so that the families’ demands may be met.

NPAD Rep. Moon Jae-in, who ran in the 2012 presidential election representing the opposition block, is on the fourth day of a hunger strike taking place at Gwanghwamun Square that demands the passage of a special Sewol law that is supported by the relatives.

Consequently, the possibility that the NPAD could renege on the second agreement and demand a re-negotiation has not been entirely ruled out. NPAD lawmakers will make a decision on the party’s next move at an upcoming party meeting.

Meanwhile, the prolonged stalemate over the special Sewol law has paralyzed parliamentary functioning this month, with a myriad of bills aimed to improve people’s livelihoods still stuck in limbo. The main opposition refuses to pass any bills before the Sewol law.

With the extra session scheduled to begin today, the prospect of passing any bills, including the Sewol law, remains slim.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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