Head of firm that operated ship which capsized in April and killed hundreds gets 10 years in prison for manslaughter.
Seoul, South Korea – It has been almost a year since her daughter Eun-hwa disappeared in the Sewol ferry disaster, but Lee Keum-hui’s eyes are red with tears – for with the teenager’s body still unrecovered, she has held no funeral and has had no closure.
“When I think of my daughter, my heart breaks, when I think how scared she must have been, how she must have called for me,” she said, speaking to foreign reporters on Wednesday.
“We have still not held a funeral, I cannot go near memorials – [because] they have the pictures of those who have been found.”
The Sewol, which was overloaded with cargo and in pour shape, sank on April 16, 2014 after making a sharp turn near Jindo Island, off southwest Korea.
The disaster took 304 lives, largely those of teenagers on a school field trip – nine of the dead have still not been recovered.
With the first anniversary of the tragedy looming, family members of the nine victims still missing spoke to correspondents on Wednesday in an emotive briefing that had the interpreter [and some journalists] in tears.
Frustration with authorities
The bereaved expressed intense personal grief as well as frustration and anger at what they consider a governmental failure to recover bodies that they are convinced lie entombed in the ferry’s hulk, 50 metres below the surface of the Yellow Sea.
“I am afraid to meet people, they say things, they mean well, but nothing helps,” said Park Eun-mi, who wears a necklace with her daughter Da-yun’s photograph on it – the two bear a striking resemblance – and a bracelet reading “Remember0416,” a reference to the day of the disaster.
“The most important thing is to find my daughter. How can I find her?”
Three divers died in underwater searches, and the government suspended the operations in November last year.
But Park says family members of the missing were coerced into agreeing to the step by officials.
“They told us it was too dangerous for the divers, they said [raising the sunken vessel] is another way to get the bodies, they made us agree,” she said.
“Some divers said they were willing to keep searching, but the government stopped them: They used the divers as an excuse.”
The same month, the government formed a task force to salvage the hulk – an operation that could reportedly cost $90m.
However, a government official contacted on the matter said she was as yet unaware of any plans to raise the 7,000 tonne vessel.
Since February, Park and Lee have been holding protests, demanding the raising of the hulk.
Joanne Kim, an expert on national traditions, said in Korean culture it is important but not essential for a funeral to include the burial of physical remains.
“We Koreans do have funerals without an actual body if they are not sure if someone is alive or dead – for example in North Korea – but in this case, they know they are down there somewhere,” said Kim, who works at the Korean Heritage Education Institute.
“This is a psychological problem, a personal decision, but in this case, I can understand their feelings.”
The issue of the bodies having been washed away by the notorious currents off Jindo Island has occurred to the bereaved mothers.
However, Park insists that her daughter’s body must still lie in the ship citing evidence from survivors that Da-yun was caught in an area from which it was impossible to escape.
With some family members considering themselves “sinners” for not being able to secure their childrens’ remains, the two mothers say their lives have been devastated.
“What scares me the most is if I go out and see Eun-hwa’s friends,” said Lee. “What could I say to them when I could not get my daughter back?”
Park feels particular grief: her daughter had not wanted to go on the field trip, but she convinced her to.
And with the anniversary soon to fall, the agony only looks likely to increase.
“For us,” said Lee. “It is still April 16.”