Sewol ferry fallout continues to dominate South Korean politics
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Sewol ferry fallout continues to dominate South Korean politics

Recently elected South Korean government officials began their first day at the office last week after winning their constituencies in early June. For their first acts in office, many of the politicians continued to show the public their dedication to safety.

In his inauguration speech, re-elected Mayor Park Won-soon said, “Seoul should be ‘the people’s metropolitan’, where the public is the top priority with safety, hope and dreams.” Gyeonggi Governor Nam Kyung-pil echoed these sentiments, inspecting the province’s Fire Services where he promised more firefighters following an earlier visit to pay respect at the joint memorial for victims of the recent Sewol ferry tragedy, instead of holding a traditional inauguration ceremony.

Strong public criticism against the government’s response to South Korea’s worst maritime disaster has been rampant. Protests and candlelight vigils have been held almost weekly, demanding the administration take responsibility. With nearly 300 lives lost, most of whom were high school students, efforts are still ongoing to recover 11 missing bodies roughly three months after the calamity.

Both the ruling and main opposition parties have pledged sweeping changes to public safety during the past months. Ahead of the June 4 local elections candidates made a flurry of promises. Policies including the government organization act, the public servants’ ethics act, and the basic disaster safety act were proposed but are still pending in parliament ahead of the upcoming by-elections at the end of July.

With the two major parties in June’s municipal elections splitting key races the by-election on July 30 could be more crucial to South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s ruling party. A defeat for the Saenuri Party could hamper President Park’s power and undermine her plans to “boost the economy,” which her administration has been adamant about.

This has created a stalemate between the two parties. In addition to pending legislation, Parliament’s panel investigating the Sewol calamity remains stalled. Last week the special Sewol parliamentary committee, comprised of lawmakers from opposing parties, held their first general meeting. However, a group representing family members of the victims said the session failed to meet their expectations. To bypass bipartisan conflict, the group started a campaign in May to collect 10 million signatures to find out the truth of the disaster without political interference. To date, according to one of the organizers Kim Eun-jin, they have an estimated 2.5 million signatures.

But this accumulation – bipartisan disagreement, sole focus on government restructuring – has shifted the public’s sense of urgency.

There are signs that South Korea is beginning to move on from the Sewol ferry disaster, while the country’s overall consumer confidence for June rose from the previous month. Consumer sentiment on current living standards, domestic economic conditions and prospective changes in household income had all risen.

President Park has carried out her major cabinet reshuffle while her administration has made changes to what many thought were key blunders by the government.

During Sewol, funds were not readily available for rescue efforts as the crash site was not designated a “special disaster zone” until over four days passed, requiring the government to approve the budgets first. For next year, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said it would increase its budget to an estimated $20 million, 9.5 times more than the amount set aside this year.

As the ferry was capsizing, over 20 passengers dialed ‘119’ to report the situation, which is the emergency number for fires, while no one called the Coast Guard, leading to a slower response time. The Ministry of Security and Public Administration has since announced plans to merge the 13 emergency numbers into either 119 or 112, depending on the people’s preference (Some of the number include: 119 for fire, 112 for crimes, 122 for accidents at sea, and 130 for anything drug-related).

Furthermore, President Park has vowed to crack down on corruption and rid what she and South Korean media have labeled a “government mafia” consisting of retired public servants who work at private companies – which many see as one of the major causes of the Sewol tragedy.

But these vows and changes have been criticized for being bureaucratic rather than preventative, like her move to disband the Coast Guard and launch a new ministry.

Prosecutors will blame the CEO and four company employees of Cheonghaejin Marine Co Ltd for the sinking of the ferry in the Sewol trial that will recommence this week. Evidence presented includes that Sewol carried 3,608 tons of cargo or 3.7 times its cargo capacity, as well as 180 vehicles, which is 32 more than its capacity of 148. For more cargo space, prosecutors argue the ferry discharged ballast water which should have provided balance while readjustments were also made to add more decks for more passengers, raising the center of gravity and weakening the ability to regain stability.

Fifteen crewmembers, including the captain of the Sewol, face negligent homicide charges, which could possibly carry the death sentence, for failing to perform their duty to rescue passengers, including ordering passengers to remain where they were when the ferry was listing as well as being among the first to abandon ship.

Cheonghaejin’s license has now been revoked.

From 2003-2011 Cheonghaejin had five ship crashes where government investigators blamed the incidents mostly on the sailors; three of the incidents happened during a period of 12 months. With these numbers it means that Cheonghaejin had almost a 63 percent chance every year of crashing. Just two weeks before the Sewol disaster another Cheonghaejin ferry was involved in a maritime accident.

Despite these numbers, the government never revoked Cheonghaejin’s license. While no casualties were reported then, punishments included suspensions, verbal warnings to the captain and company, and fines. The government made recommendations for safety changes that were non-binding.

In an unprecedented move to strengthen public safety, South Korea held a nationwide fire drill in late June. Public buildings, department stores, shopping malls, bus terminals and schools were evacuated for 20 minutes. According to a spokesperson for the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the exercise was the first of its kind.