SEOUL, April 12 (Yonhap) -- Four years after the deadly sinking of the ferry Sewol, South Koreans are still coming to grips with the truth behind the incident muddled by bureaucratic irresponsibility, politicking, public distrust and unfounded speculation.
Over the past year, efforts to get to the bottom of the April 16, 2014, disaster have gathered steam. State investigators are probing government irregularities related to its botched response, and experts are examining the rusty body of the 6,825-ton vessel, which was salvaged nearly three years after its sinking.
The ferry sank in waters off the country's southwestern island of Jindo. Of the 476 passengers, 299 have been confirmed dead, with five others still unaccounted for. The victims were mostly teenagers on a school trip to the southern resort island of Jeju.
On Monday, the nation is set to mark the first Sewol anniversary since the liberal Moon Jae-in government took office in May last year, and calls are mounting for an aboveboard verification of the truth. Experts also urged the government to step up efforts to improve the country's safety management and crisis response systems so that what they view as a manmade calamity will never be repeated.
"The facts behind the sinking must be verified to the hilt, to the extent that victims and other citizens feel that the verification is sufficient," Park Sun-young, a lawyer who has supported the victims and their families for several years, told Yonhap News Agency.
"Only when we have the conviction that even if such an accident occurs again, sufficiently trained and competent crewmembers and maritime police will be ready to rescue us all, will the collective trauma be healed," she added.
The nation has been split over the outcome of the 2014 government probe into the maritime fiasco, including questions of who should be held accountable for it and how should the country's disaster control system be improved.
Wrapping up its five-month probe in October 2014, a team of prosecutors and police concluded that the sinking was caused by a combination of cargo overloading, an illegal redesign of the ship and the steersman's poor helmsmanship.
But public distrust toward the government gave rise to a flurry of unsubstantiated speculation. Some said the ship ran aground or collided with a submarine. Others even raised political conspiracies to explain the tragedy.
Then-President Park Geun-hye's alleged inaction on the tragic day has also led to intense political confrontation, and rumors persisted that Park underwent plastic surgery or other cosmetic treatments during the disaster.
All this triggered calls for a new, objective probe into the sinking.
"I think that the approaches taken by many involved in the resolution of the case have been too political," said Huh Chang-deog, a sociology professor at Yeungnam University.
"Rather than seeking to verify the facts from the standpoint of the victims and their families, politicians appear to be using the issue in pursuit of their political goals based on their own interpretations," he added.
Aware of the rampant public misgivings, the National Assembly passed a motion in March last year to launch a new panel to examine the salvaged ferry and find the exact cause of the sinking.
Since the ferry was brought onto land in April last year, investigators have been searching the ship to find the remains of the missing. They are currently in the process of standing the wreck upright to pave the way for what will be their last search of its engine room.
The current Moon Jae-in government has also launched a series of probes into the allegations that senior officials from the previous administration had impeded a special investigation panel's inquiry into the sinking.
Last month, prosecutors indicted three former aides to Park Geun-hye, including ex-Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun, on charges of obstructing the probes.
In the same month, they also indicted three other former Park aides for doctoring the time log of presidential reports on the disaster. In addition, they revealed that Park stayed in her residence, leaving her main office empty at the crucial time of the rescue operations.
The investigation outcome has infuriated the families of the victims but also raised hopes that more can be revealed to foster soul-searching on the part of the government and help shore up the state crisis management apparatus.
"What matters is not the fact that Park stayed in her residence, but what she did (at the time of the rescue operations)," a member of one bereaved family said in an interview with Yonhap last month. "Taking the latest investigation as a starting point, the authorities have to ascertain greater truths."
Seol Dong-hoon, sociology professor at Chonbuk National University, pointed out that the public calls for enhanced public safety and crisis management not only target the former government, but also the current Moon administration.
"When it comes to the crisis management, the Moon administration should also be subject to public scrutiny based on the same standards (as those applied to the preceding government)," he said.
"After all, it is a matter of how much effort the government makes to improve citizens' safety and their wellbeing," he added.
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