SEOUL – Angry relatives of passengers who drowned in a ferry sinking snubbed South Korea’s president on the disaster’s anniversary Thursday even as she pledged to salvage the ship.
Tears and grief mixed with raw fury as black-clad relatives and their supporters mourned the 304 victims of the ferry Sewol, most of whom were high school students. Earlier in the day, relatives blocked the prime minister from attending a mourning event. They later canceled another ceremony because of what they called government indifference to their plight.
There’s widespread fatigue among many South Koreans a year after one of the country’s worst disasters. But there’s also frustration among those who see their government as having failed to meaningfully improve safety standards and hold high-level officials accountable for a disaster blamed in part on incompetence and corruption.
Hours before a trip abroad, President Park Geun-hye visited a small port near the site of the sinking to offer her condolences to the bereaved relatives. Most, however, refused to meet her, in protest of the government’s handling of the sinking, and had already left the port.
Park gave a speech anyway, announcing ship salvaging plans for the first time. She provided few details, however, saying only the salvage operation would happen “as soon as possible.”
Flags in public buildings were lowered to half-staff and a minute of silence was observed in Ansan, the city that lost nearly an entire class of students on a doomed field trip to a southern resort island. A private ceremony was planned at Danwon High School in the evening.
Relatives canceled a memorial service in Ansan that thousands were planning to attend. They expressed anger over President Park not visiting the site and not providing a firm commitment for a deeper investigation into what they say is government responsibility for the sinking and botched rescue. The relatives also claimed that Park should have delivered a more detailed plan for salvaging the ship during her speech at the port, according to Pil Kyu-hwang, a lawyer representing the families.
The estimated cost of raising the ferry is between $91 million and $137 million, and it could take as long as 1½ years.
Relatives in Ansan wept and touched pictures of their lost loved ones as they recalled helplessly watching on television as the ferry slowly sank into the sea.
Scores at the port near the sunken ship walked to a lighthouse where hundreds of yellow ribbons were tied to handrails in memory of the victims.
Rallies, candle light vigils and other gatherings were planned in downtown Seoul, where relatives of the victims have been holding protests for months.
Also Thursday, South Korean lawmakers adopted a resolution urging the government to salvage the ferry. Of the 165 lawmakers in the National Assembly session, 161 voted to adopt the resolution, two voted against it and two abstained.