Four years later, pain of Sewol disaster lingers

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Four years later, pain of Sewol disaster lingers


Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon pays tribute at a memorial altar set up by the central government in Ansan, Gyeonggi, on Monday to mourn the victims of the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014. Speaking at a memorial service, Lee pledged that the government of President Moon Jae-in will do its utmost to make South Korea a safer place to live in. It was the first time the central government sponsored a memorial service for the Sewol ferry victims. [YONHAP]

Thousands attended the first government-organized memorial service for the 304 people killed in the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking, the country’s worst maritime disaster, in Ansan, Gyeonggi, on Monday.

“It is April 16 today, one of the most hurtful days in the history of Korea,” Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said at the memorial service. “We remember this day every year, but today is special. It is special because the central government, for the first time, is hosting the memorial service for the victims.”

The ferry capsized on April 16, 2014, in waters off South Jeolla. Among the 304 victims, 250 of them were second-year students at Ansan’s Danwon High School. They were on a field trip to Jeju Island.

In a meeting with top aides Monday, President Moon Jae-in emphasized building a safer country as the best way to remember the victims.

“Today is the fourth anniversary of the Sewol ferry disaster and the fourth anniversary of National Safety Day,” Moon said during the meeting at the Blue House. “The government four years ago designated today as National Safety Day to promise the students and children on the Sewol ferry that we will not forget them and that we will create a safer country for all.”

However, a recent public opinion poll showed 51 percent of Koreans do not believe the country’s disaster response system has improved since the Sewol disaster.

“The current administration cannot say with confidence now that they are wrong about that,” Moon said. “This is why, four years after the disaster, we have to remember the Sewol victims … and the true way to remember them is to build a safer country.”

Moon, however, did not attend the ceremony in Ansan. Sources said the president may be trying to focus on his agenda for his upcoming summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un next week.

About 5,000 people, including Danwon High School students, relatives of victims and members of the National Assembly, attended the ceremony on Monday.

“We were encouraged to hear President Moon Jae-in’s promise to find out the exact cause of the ferry’s capsizing and the remains of the missing,” said Jeon Myung-sun, head of an association of relatives of Sewol victims. “Today’s memorial service is not an end, but a beginning to something.”

In a statement on Sunday, Moon pledged to locate the remains of five people who are still missing.

The ferry was salvaged from the seabed in April 2017 and lies on its port side at Mokpo New Port in South Jeolla. The remains of four passengers were found inside. The ferry is to be set upright before the search continues for the remaining five people.

Attendees of the ceremony Monday paid respects to the victims and put flowers on an altar. Some relatives broke down.

“After today, we are closing the altar for victims, which has been in place for the past four years,” Lee said.

The central government established the altar inside a public park in Ansan in April 2014 shortly after the sinking, and it has received more than 735,000 visitors as of Sunday.

However, the public has become increasingly divided over whether to keep the altar. Ansan’s city government has requested the central government close the altar and proposed building a memorial park instead.

President Moon has said he will work with the Ansan city government and residents to build a memorial park there, but it remains unclear how the plan will unravel.

Some conservative groups in Ansan have opposed the plan, calling it harmful for local businesses because the Sewol case still remains politically controversial.

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