A time to healIt took nearly three years to lift the Sewol ferry from the bottom of the sea off Jindo, an island in South Jeolla. The heart-wrenching moment on Thursday of the rusted ship’s emergence has tormented not only the relatives of the 304 victims, which include 266 Danwon High School students, but also the entire nation as people watched the scene unfold on television. The vessel finally surfaced above waters almost two years after the government decided to haul it up from the rough waters.
The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries plans to put the ship on a nearby semi-submersible vessel by Friday after elevating it 13 meters (43 feet) above the sea’s surface. In a week or two, the ferry will be moved to a new port in Mokpo on the southwestern tip of the country. The government must do its best to ensure safety throughout the entire process of relocating the ship to a safe place.
The salvage operation is not the end of the Korean people’s uncontrollable outrage and pain, but the beginning of a long-awaited process of finding the nine passengers still missing, clearing up doubts about the sinking, addressing our deepening social conflict, healing all pain and redesigning a safe country down the road.
Many suspicions linger over the tragic sinking of the ferry on April 16, 2014. The prosecution attributed it to the ship’s overloading, structural flaws and poor sailing. But wild rumors were rampant, including one theory suggesting collision with a military submarine. Some civic groups still claim the ferry sank because it carried too many iron bars to be used for the construction of a naval base on Jeju Island. Some pundits even say the Korean Coast Guard lost precious time needed to rescue passengers while shooting a video of the incident to report to the president.
The salvage operation offers a good opportunity to address such suspicions and distrust among the public. The government must swiftly establish a committee to look into the ferry sinking and find out why it happened. Now that a special legislative act has taken effect to investigate the incident, a group of maritime specialists should answer those questions without any favor to political parties or ideologies. That’s the only way to help heal the deep wounds as quickly as possible.
Politicians in particular must not seek to exploit the investigation for political gain. With the third anniversary of the tragedy quickly approaching and the next presidential election scheduled to be held on May 9, presidential contenders must hold back their temptation to take political advantage of the disaster. The people will not forgive it.
The government promised to rehabilitate the nation after the Sewol tragedy, but nothing has changed since as clearly seen in a series of train, fire and ship accidents, not to mention the government’s lethargic response to earthquakes and outbreaks of bird flu. The government must sincerely vow to reset our worn-out safety systems. Otherwise, the lessons from the Sewol tragedy will be forgotten again.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 24, Page 34