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(News Focus) Emerging ferry sounds clarion call for truth, reconciliation

All Headlines 19:27 March 23, 2017

SEOUL, March 23 (Yonhap) -- The long-awaited scene of the ferry Sewol slowly emerging from the dark sea sounded a clarion call Thursday for verifying the truth behind the deadly sinking and bringing together a nation deeply divided over its worst maritime tragedy, observers here said.

Many Koreans held their breath watching the rusty parts of the 6,825-ton ship lifted above the water off the southwestern coast near Jindo Island early Thursday.

For many, it brought back painful memories of April 16, 2014, when the ferry capsized leaving 295 dead and nine missing, and laid bare in its wake the nation's deep-seated corruption, dismal safety management and government incompetence in crisis response.

As the herculean salvaging operations proceed, Koreans hope that the recovery will open the way for new soul searching to heal their deep collective scars and overcome social and political divisions that haunted the nation for the past three years.

Some family members of the victims killed in the 2014 ferry disaster watch the sunken ship Sewol emerge from the seabed near Jindo, some 472 kilometers south of Seoul, on March 23, 2017. (Yonhap)

"Beyond the simple physical aspect of pulling it from the sea, the salvaging process carries a symbolic meaning for our society," Choi Hang-sub, a sociology professor at Kookmin University, told Yonhap News Agency.

"It means an opportunity for the government to shore up public trust (by investigating the lifted ship and ascertaining the exact cause of the disaster) and for our nation as a whole to work towards reconciliation and move beyond the tragedy," he added.

Since the fiasco, the nation has been sharply divided over the outcome of the government probe into the sinking, who should be held accountable for it, and how to reshape the nation's crisis management system to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy.

Wrapping up its five-month-long probe, the joint investigation team of prosecutors and police concluded in October 2014 that the sinking was caused by a combination of cargo overloading, an illegal redesign of the ship and the steersman's poor helmsmanship.

But wild and persistent rumors have kept adding to the confusion and complicating efforts by the country to recover from the fallout of the tragedy. Some say the ship ran aground or collided with a submarine. Others even raised political conspiracies related to the tragedy.

The government's apparent failure to get to the bottom of the disaster and console the victims' families added to national woes and spawned speculation that the authorities sought to gloss or paper over the disaster. It also gave rise to a popular protest song entitled "The Truth Shall Not Sink."

"The government's failure to live up to people's expectations for it to verify the truth promptly, accurately, fairly and clearly has had very negative ramifications in our society," Shin Kwang-yeong, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University, told Yonhap.

The allegations of then-President Park Geun-hye's inaction and the government botched response on the tragic day have been another source of division. Despite her repeated denials, rumors have persisted that Park underwent plastic surgery or other cosmetic treatments during the disaster.

Despite widespread public distrust towards the government, some observers said the salvaging efforts should be used to unite citizens with a powerful message: the government will not give up or betray any citizen.

"Though the salvage operation was long overdue and will bring the scars of our nation to the fore again, it should deliver a message that the Republic of Korea will never forget the sacrifice of each victim in the disaster and will never give up any citizen," said Huh Chang-deog, a sociology professor at Yeungnam University. "That message will help bring together a divided nation."

The salvage operation comes as the nation is gearing up for the May 9 election to pick the successor to Park, who was dismissed earlier this month as the Constitutional Court upheld her impeachment over a corruption scandal.

The biggest task for the next leader is to heal national divisions rather than courting yet another controversy over the ferry sinking, Huh said.

"South Korea's next leader should be one with statesmanship that can promote national unity by paying due attention to citizens in the throes of their ordeals and, at the same time, caring for other citizens as well in the pursuit of national integration," Huh noted.

Citizens visit a joint altar for the victims of a 2014 ferry disaster in Ansan, 42 kilometers southwest of Seoul, on March 23, 2017. (Yonhap)


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