Overwhelmed by grief, they were scorned instead of embraced
The families of the Sewol victims were targeted by the Korean government after they held candlelight vigils and protests to demand answers. They also underwent surveillance and intimidation by the Defense Security Command (South Korea’s military intelligence service), egregious violations of their civil rights.
The Sewol began to sink during the morning rush in South Korea. On television and computer screens, parents of the Danwon High School students on board the ship followed along in horror; some even talked on cell phones to their trapped children. At first, there were reassuring reports that everyone had been rescued. But those hopes soon faded with the realization that so many had perished. In all, 304 would be lost that day, 250 of them children.
For the families, a battle for the truth had begun.
They were not supported by the Korean government. Rather, they were subjected to human rights violations and denied answers. In time, their mood shifted from grief to anger and frustration as the mystery of why the ship sank deepened. As they protested and demanded answers, holding candlelight vigils and sleeping outside the Blue House, they became targets of Internet trolls and right-wing politicians who suggested they were agents of North Korea.
But that was only the beginning. The families were even targeted by the Korean government itself and were subjected to surveillance and intimidation by the Defense Security Command (DSC), Korea’s military intelligence service. The DSC was manipulated into becoming a public relations communications arm of the Park Administration, as opposed to a military unit sworn to protect the people. Agents of the DSC sought “dirt” on the parents to use as blackmail to get them to cease their protests.
And still, the families fought on – demanding justice for their children.
The first major rallies and marches by the families occurred on May 31, 2014, in Seoul and other major cities, including Ansan and Busan. About 800 civic groups formed the “People’s Countermeasure Meeting for the Sewol Ferry Disaster” and held a candlelight vigil at Cheonggye Plaza in Seoul, with 20,000 people attending. These candlelight vigils continued until Park Geun-hye’s impeachment in 2017.
According to the Korea Herald, even before the candlelight vigils, families who were beginning to raise questions about the sinking were trailed by detectives. This would turn out to be just the first questionable action taken by law enforcement. The government began drawing up “trend reports” to inform the Blue House – South Korea’s White House — of the actions of grieving family members.
But things only got worse.
According to the Korea Joongang, Defense Ministry investigations revealed that, as families protested, the DSC task force designed to improve the Park Administration’s image tried to rein in victims’ families who were critical of the administration’s botched rescue operation.
In one document, the DSC classified victims’ families into three different categories – hardline, moderate, and soft-line – based on their attitudes toward the Park administration. Agents investigated the families’ political activities tracing back six months prior to the sinking, apparently with the goal of finding negative facts from their pasts that could be used as leverage to silence them.
Protesters were also described as “North Korea-followers” by the DSC, the kind of claim that has a long history in Korean politics, in which the conservative party often labels its opponents as having sympathy for – or even being in cahoots with — the North.
The website The Diplomat reported that the DSC spread rumors that the families were only protesting because they sought monetary compensation.
The government tried to manipulate public opinion by using extreme right-wing internet users, websites, and organizations to target the grieving families in an officially sanctioned smear campaign. In many ways, this echoed the treatment of the parents of children killed in the Newtown, Conn., shooting in 2012, who also found themselves accused.
The plight of the Sewol families, and how they were victimized by the government and right-wing trolls — not to mention the families’ ever-lasting heartbreak — was poignantly captured in an op-ed essay in the Los Angeles Times (view a pdf version here) by Jong Dae Park, who’s 13-year-old son Su-hyeon Park was among the victims.
In the end, according to the 2018 United States Department of State Human Rights Report for South Korea, General So Gang-won of the DSC was arrested for carrying out illegal surveillance of civilians affected by the Sewol sinking. The command was accused of having 60 agents monitor victims’ families communications to feed information to the Park Administration.
The bereaved families of Sewol victims have fought for answers during the Park Administration and through the subsequent Moon Administration, and they continue their battle now under the administration of Yoon Suk-yeol. The findings of the Social Disasters Commission – that the cause of the sinking could still not be determined, but that state crimes had been committed against the families – has only strengthened their resolve and their calls along with other Sewol organizations to keep digging for the truth.
- The state must acknowledge responsibility for and apologize for the Sewol ferry disaster and state violence, and promise further investigations until the final cause is determined.
- Disclose all presidential records related to the disaster, as well as undisclosed government records.
- The Coast Guard command and National Control Tower personnel responsible for the tragedy, as well as those responsible for surveillance of victims’ families, should be tried and, if found guilty, punished.
- The government and the National Assembly should pledge additional measures to assure that such a disaster will not occur again.