A Sewol solution
Within the New Politics Alliance for Democracy there is a faction loyal to the late liberal president Roh Moo-hyun and proportional lawmakers who are campaigning for a boycott of all legislative activities in a sympathy protest with relatives of the students who died in the ferry. The teen victims’ families are refusing to accept a bipartisan agreement on a special bill to deal with the Sewol crisis and one grieving father is on a life-threatening hunger strike. These relatives want a civilian committee to have the right to investigate and indict those accountable for the tragedy.
Then there are veteran politicians from Jeolla, the opposition’s home turf, led by Park Young-sun, acting leader of the NPAD, which are proposing a compromise through discussions with the family representatives.
Lastly, there are the executive-level politicians who are looking the other way, hoping time will pass quickly.
The lawmaker who admitted the split in the opposition front said with a sigh: “It’s good that this year’s Chuseok holiday is coming soon. It will give us a strategic cooling-off period.” The opposition admits there is no simple solution to addressing the Sewol calamity and it will take a long time for the process of passing a Sewol special law to play out.
What about public sentiment? According to a recent poll, 45.8 percent of respondents said the special law should be passed under the terms agreed to by the ruling and opposition parties. Another 38.2 percent believed the opinions of victim’s families should be respected and the bill needs to be renegotiated. The gap of 7.3 percentage points is not that narrow. More importantly, the biggest group - people in their 40s - approves of the law being passed without further negotiation. In an earlier survey, 53 percent approved of bestowing the special panel with unprecedented authority to independently investigate and indict those accountable as demanded by the victim families. The ruling Saenuri Party has been opposing the idea because it would disrupt the criminal law principle that a victim cannot direct the prosecution of a case against a perpetrator.
A bigger factor is public concerns about the tragedy turning into a political circus. The opposition has used local elections and by-elections to pummel the ruling party and government over the issue. But in ordinary people’s eyes, the culprits are, in order of culpability, the captain and crew for abandoning their ship and passengers; the ferry’s operator and its corrupt owner family; the Coast Guard and other irresponsible and incompetent administrative organizations. The opposition camp focused on the Blue House and the aloofness of President Park Geun-hye. The victim families were also obsessed with the Blue House from the beginning. Instead of rallying in front of Chonghaejin Marine Company, the operator of the ferry, or the premises of the church run by Yoo Byung-eun, the patriarch of the family that owned the ferry and ran a dubious religious and business operation, they headed to the Blue House, demanding a tete-a-tete with the president. It’s no wonder the crisis has become a fiery political hot potato.
Time won’t be in favor of the victim families. Some opposition members from sensitive capital regions are already keeping a distance from the issue. Some of the relatives of adult victims want to accept the bill as negotiated and speed up the legislative process. Spiteful bloggers have began to dig into the history of Kim Young-oh, widely known as the father of Yu-min, a teenage casualty of the sinking who has been on a hunger strike for more than 40 days. If hostilities become aggravated, we may witness the familiar scene of police clashing with angry protestors.
Victim families will have to become more engaging to keep the public on their side. They accused the opposition of sleeping with the devil. The devil here is the ruling party. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came under heavy fire after he casually called a tragic mine collapse that killed 301 workers a “usual thing.” And yet he won the country’s first direct presidential election earlier this month. Ten rescue workers died as the search for 10 missing bodies from the sunken Sewol ferry continues as of this day. Hundreds of volunteer workers have been at the scene. Compared to Turkey, Korea is a fairly decent society.
Solving the Sewol impasse is the key to clearing the bottleneck on hundreds of other pending bills including one on basic aid for poor families. A mother and two grown-up daughters in Seoul’s Songpa district committed suicide after leaving a note about their rent and utility fees. The revised law on basic allowances with a budget of 230 billion won ($226.16 million) for the second half is held hostage by the Sewol special law.
The key to resolving this national divide and legislative stalemate is held by the families of Sewol victims, not the president. The people must solve problems and get on with the business of life instead of wasting energy on political vendettas.
JoongAng Ilbo, August 25, Page 34
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
BY Lee Chul-ho