SEOUL/MOKPO/JINDO, SOUTH KOREA – More than a week after a South Korean ferry carrying 476 people capsized and sank, North Korea has finally voiced its condolences for the victims of the disaster, including the many schoolchildren who died.
The message was sent Wednesday between the two Koreas’ Red Cross organizations, which regularly handle official cross-border communications, the Unification Ministry in Seoul said.
Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency later confirmed the condolence message. “The message expressed deep sympathy as regards the sinking of the ferry Sewol . . . claiming many casualties including young schoolchildren and leaving many persons missing,” it said.
Until now, North Korea had been the glaring exception among the messages of sympathy, condolence and support that have poured in from around the world after the Sewol sank with devastating loss of life on April 16. North Korean state media had previously barely commented on the tragedy, which has dominated global headlines for the past seven days.
The Sewol sank on a routine trip from the port of Incheon, near Seoul, to the southern holiday island of Jeju. Of the 476 passengers and crew members on board, 339 were children and teachers on a high school outing.
Only 174 people were rescued, and the remainder are presumed to have drowned. The confirmed death toll as of Thursday afternoon was 171, with many of those found at the back of the ship on the fourth deck.
Heads of state across the political and geographical spectrum have sent personal messages, including U.S. President Barack Obama, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. Not a word, however, from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. KCNA reported he thoroughly enjoyed a performance by the popular all-female Moranbong Band on the evening of April 16, around the time the full scale of the ferry disaster was emerging.
North and South Korea technically remain in a state of war, as the hostilities of the 1950-53 Korean War were concluded with a cease-fire rather than a formal peace treaty, and their heavily militarized border remains one of extreme Cold War sensitivity. But declarations of sympathy at times of national grief are not unprecedented. When North Korean leader Kim Jong Il — Kim Jong Un’s father — died in December 2011, the South Korean government offered its condolences to the North Korean people.
Hunting for clues
The reason for the vessel’s capsizing remains undetermined. However, a maritime professor who spoke with the third mate, who was steering the South Korean ferry before it sank, said Wednesday that he suspects there was a problem with the steering gear.
Professor Kim Woo-sook of Mokpo National Maritime University is a former teacher of the third mate, Park Han-gyeol. She was arrested Saturday in connection with the disaster.
Kim talked to Park at a Mokpo detention facility. He said she told him she ordered a helmsman to make a 5-degree turn that was part of the ship’s normal course, but the steering gear turned too far and the helmsman could not turn it back.
Tracking data show the ship made a 45-degree turn, and that it turned roughly 180 degrees within three minutes just before it began to sink. Prosecutors have said they are trying to determine the disaster’s cause by examining the turn and other factors, including wind, currents, freight and modifications made to the ship.
But Kim said he suspects a problem in the steering gear was behind the ship’s capsizing, together with freight that was reportedly secured too loosely. He cited reports that the ship’s turn led some freight to shift to one side, making the vessel unbalanced. He said that if the freight had been loaded on the ship tightly enough, the vessel would not have capsized even if the steering gear didn’t work.
On Wednesday, senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said government investigators have not confirmed problems in the steering gear of the Sewol, which remains submerged.
The Sewol’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, 69, and other crew members who abandoned ship have been arrested on negligence charges. Lee was also charged with undertaking an “excessive change of course without slowing down.”
Death toll mounts
South Korean media reported Thursday that the body had been found of a South Korean boy whose shaking voice first raised the alarm that a passenger ferry with hundreds on board was in trouble, his parents believe. A DNA test has yet to confirm the find.
His parents had checked his body and clothes and concluded he was their son, the Yonhap news agency reported.
The crew had told the children to stay put as the ferry sank. The first distress call from the sinking vessel was made by the boy, three minutes after the vessel made its fateful last turn, a fire service officer said.
He dialed the emergency 119 number, which put him through to the fire service, which in turn forwarded him to the coast guard two minutes later. That was followed by about 20 other calls from children on board the ship to the emergency number.
“Save us! We’re on a ship and I think it’s sinking,” Yonhap quoted the boy as crying.
As the 171st body was pulled from waters where the Sewol sank a week ago, relatives of the 131 people still missing urged the government to finish the grim recovery task soon.
Sensitive new phase
But the work was reaching a new, more complicated phase, with an official saying divers must now rip through cabin walls to retrieve more victims.
Looming in the background is a sensitive issue: when to bring in the cranes and begin the salvage effort by cutting up and raising the submerged vessel. The government has warned that the work might eliminate air pockets that could be sustaining survivors, but for some relatives that is a long-lost hope.
“Now we think we have to deal with this realistically,” Pyun Yong-gi, whose 17-year-old daughter is among the missing, said on Jindo Island, where recovered bodies have been taken for families to identify. “We don’t want the bodies to decay further, so we want them to pull out the bodies as quickly as they can.”
That view is not shared among all relatives of the missing, however. One of them, Jang Jong-ryul, was sensitive about the mere mention of the word “salvage” and said most families don’t want to think about it.
The number of corpses recovered has risen sharply since the weekend, when divers battling strong currents and low visibility were finally able to enter the submerged vessel. But Koh Myung-seok, spokesman for the government emergency task force, said the work is becoming more difficult, as divers must now break through cabin walls. “The lounge is one big open space, so once in it we got our search done straight away. But in the case of the cabins, we will have to break down the walls in between because they are all compartments,” Koh said.
The government has not said when it intends to begin the salvage effort, though it has said it will be considerate of families of the missing. “Even if there is only one survivor,” Koh assured, “our government will do its best to rescue that person, and then we will salvage the ferry.”
Relatives set deadline
For some relatives of the missing, speed in recovering the dead is becoming more important than shrinking hopes that their loved ones might still be alive. “I’ve seen the bodies and they are starting to smell. It inflicts a new wound for the parents to see the bodies decomposed,” Pyun said.
He and other relatives have set a deadline of Thursday for the government to recover all the bodies, though he concedes they have no way to enforce it. “We are not the ones who are actually doing it, so we know that there is nothing we can do,” Pyun said.
The victims of the April 16 disaster are overwhelmingly students of a single high school in Ansan, near Seoul. More than three-quarters of the 323 students are dead or missing, while nearly two-thirds of the other 153 people on board survived.
Twenty-two of the 29 members of the ferry’s crew survived, and 11, including the captain, have been arrested or detained in connection with the investigation. Two more of the crew were arrested Wednesday, senior prosecutor Ahn Sang-don said.
Ahn said an analysis of photos and video on the ship before its sinking showed the captain and other arrested crew members didn’t rescue passengers, though it was their duty. Ahn said the crew members were at the ship’s steering room or engine room together before fleeing the Sewol earlier than the passengers.
The captain initially instructed passengers to stay in their cabins, and waited about half an hour to issue an evacuation order. He has said he waited because the current was strong, the water was cold and passengers could have drifted away before help arrived.
But maritime experts said he could have ordered passengers to the deck — where they would have had a greater chance of survival — without telling them to abandon ship.