Sewol committee produces littleAlthough the investigation by the special fact-finding committee on the Sewol ferry disaster officially ended on Friday, the committee is far from producing tangible results.
The ferry capsized on the morning of April 16, 2014, killing 304 passengers. Many of them were 11th grade students from Danwon High School in Gyeonggi who were on a field trip to Jeju Island. The committee was created by a special law in January 2015. The law determined that the committee would remain active for one year from the date when its members were selected, allowing an extension up to 6 months.
That period ended on Thursday. As stipulated by the law, the committee now has three months to report its findings in a white paper.
“Look, even if we want to write up a white paper,” said Kim Hyeong-wook, a public relations manager at the committee, “we just don’t have substantial materials to report yet.”
The committee finalized its decision last September to investigate some 200 factors regarding the Sewol ferry disaster, taking into consideration requests from victims’ groups.
But the committee and the victims’ groups argue that the committee has seven more months to continue its investigations, due to disagreements among political parties that delayed the prompt commencement of its operations.
Disagreements between the Saenuri Party and New Politics Alliance for Democracy (now the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea) regarding who its members should be and whether to empower the committee with the authority to investigate and indict suspects dragged on for months after the special law was passed.
It was only in August last year that the parties finalized the committee’s membership and budget.
“The committee’s budget was finalized on Aug. 4, 2015 and so this was when it was able to commence its operations,” said Lee Suk-Tae, chairman of the committee, in a press release last week. “Therefore the order by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries to close down the committee’s investigations by Thursday is not legally binding.”
Lee said the committee will continue to investigate the disaster and will commence writing up a white paper on Feb. 4, 2017. By then, the committee will have been in existence for 1.5 years.
“Even if the committee follows the order from the ministry to cease investigations and write up a white paper by the end of September,” Lee added, “there is no guarantee that the ministry will lift the Sewol ferry out of the water within that time frame. What if the committee is not granted access to the ferry?”
Efforts to recover the sunken ferry from waters off Korea’s southwestern coast are ongoing, with bereaved relatives camping out near the coast. Nine passengers’ bodies remain missing.
“We will continue our investigations beyond July first,” Lee said.
On Thursday, there were a total of 92 employees working for the committee. Of these, 29 were public officials dispatched temporarily and 58 were newly hired.
“While 12 of the dispatched officials went back to their former posts, the rest are staying with us,” said Kim, the public relations manager. “We have requested the Ministry of Strategy and Finance to draft a new budget for the committee to continue these investigations.”
But without government assistance, the committee’s work faces an uphill battle. The team that specializes in victim support, for instance, now has five employees who are left to continue work that was formerly carried out by nine people.
Additionally, the head of the committee’s investigations department still needs to be named by President Park Geun-hye, as the position has remained vacant throughout the committee’s lifespan, despite repeated requests made to the president by the committee.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]