Crowd calls out government at Sewol memorial

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Crowd calls out government at Sewol memorial

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About 10,000 protesters occupied the main thoroughfare in Gwanghwamun in central Seoul on Thursday night after taking part in a memorial ceremony at Seoul Square to mark the anniversary of the Sewol ferry sinking. [NEWSIS]

Gwanghwamun Gate in central Seoul, the main gate to Gyeongbok Palace, was firmly shut down on Friday afternoon.

At the entrance, surrounded by a crowd of riot police officers in their trademark green fluorescent uniforms, members of local civic groups and a few dozen relatives of the victims of last year’s Sewol ferry sinking were chanting phrases in protest of the government.

The accident on April 16, 2014, the nation’s worst maritime disaster, left more than 304 passengers dead or missing - most of them 11th-grade high school students on a class trip.

But while many nationwide quietly marked this one-year milestone, others used it as an opportunity to voice their grief and frustration over what they feel has been a lack of action on the government’s part to rectify a devastating tragedy.

On Friday, mere hours after the anniversary of the sinking, the sidewalks and crosswalks around the palace were restricted, while dozens more police officers patrolled the area.

“Last night, the police blocked all the sidewalks in the Gwanghwamun area and treated the relatives of the victims - who deserve freedom of speech - like public enemies,” one of the victims’ family members said in a press conference held at the gate that day.

“Citizens and family members of the deceased who tried to get to the memorial altar at Gwanghwamun Square were blocked by the atrocious and illegal obstacles set up by the police.”

The scene followed a fierce protest from the evening before that continued overnight. According to police, about 10,000 people took part in a memorial ceremony held at Seoul Square in the city’s central district to mark the anniversary of the sinking.

From there, the crowd marched unannounced toward Gwanghwamun Square to pay tribute to the victims at a memorial altar, though when officers set up walls with police vehicles to block them in an attempt to maintain order, it led to sporadic and intense struggles between the two sides.

But the relatives of the victims, who were mostly students from Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi, eventually managed to get through the police barricades and gathered with civic groups on Thursday at the Gwanghwamun Gate, where they staged an overnight rally.

“After countless attempts and struggles until the break of dawn, we are here at the Gwanghwamun Gate with a blanket,” Kim Young-oh, who lost his daughter Yu-min in the accident, said on a social networking service on Friday. “In the meantime, the mother of one of the victims broke four of her ribs and 10 others were taken by the police.”

The families of the victims and civic groups have so far demanded the government salvage the sunken Sewol from the sea to finally put the remains of the nine still missing to rest and hopefully shed light on the truth behind the accident. They have also called for the retraction of the ordinance proposed by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries for the special investigation committee, a nongovernmental investigative body that was launched according to a special Sewol law legislated in November.

The ordinance states that the ministry will put some high-level public officials in some key posts on the committee, which some committee members and relatives of the victims say is almost guaranteed to undermine the independence of the body, which was designed to investigate the accident as well as the government.

The government so far has not clearly announced a schedule or details for the organization.

On Friday, demonstrators criticized President Park’s address delivered the previous day at Paengmok Harbor, where victims’ families boycotted her appearance and reportedly refused to meet with her.

“The statement delivered at the harbor [on Thursday] is of no use because she did not answer the demands of the people,” said Park Jin, a representative of a joint coalition of civic groups. “It also sounded like she wanted the relatives of the victims to stay calm and do nothing.

“The families will wait here for the next memorial ceremony at 3 p.m. on Saturday, and we ask for the public’s participation as well.”

The relatives plan to continue their activities in commemoration of the tragedy, despite the hard-line stance of the police.

A large-scale candlelit vigil was held Friday at Seoul Square, while another large-scale gathering to demand the salvage of the ship is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Saturday at the same venue, where the families are considering another march toward the Blue House.

A concern among government officials, however, is whether those events could lead to another nationwide antigovernment movement, similar to the candlelit movement in 2008 under the previous Lee Myung-bak administration over the import of U.S. beef included in the free trade agreement with the United States after a mad cow disease scare.

After the Lee government moved in April 2008 to import beef from the United States regardless of the age of the cattle, an antigovernment rally that began with a candlelit vigil in May 2008 near Cheonggye Square eventually morphed into a nationwide movement that lasted several months.

According to a JoongAng Ilbo survey in June 2008, Lee’s approval rating stood at just 19.7 percent. Before the movement, he typically maintained support above 40 percent.

Coupled with graft scandals involving Park’s key aides, including Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo, the administration’s passive attitude toward the management of the Sewol ferry accident has brought down the president’s approval rating this week to 34 percent, according to Gallup Korea, down from 39 percent last week.

On Thursday, President Park Geun-hye flew to Colombia for a 12-day trip to Latin America. She returns to Seoul on April 27.

BY KIM BONG-MOON [kim.bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]

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