An unfinished quest to uncover true story of Sewol sinking, as told by a bereaved parent

Posted on : 2024-04-08 17:13 KST Modified on : 2024-04-08 17:13 KST
After losing his son, Jang Hun took part in all three official investigations into the Sewol’s sinking 10 years ago
Jang Hun, who lost his son Jun-hyeong in the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, speaks to the Hankyoreh from his office in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, on April 2, 2024. (Jung Hwan-bong/The Hankyoreh)
Jang Hun, who lost his son Jun-hyeong in the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, speaks to the Hankyoreh from his office in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, on April 2, 2024. (Jung Hwan-bong/The Hankyoreh)

“Jun-hyeong’s dad.”
 
For the past 10 years, Jang Hun has heard his son’s name more than his own.
 
After serving as a steering committee member and chair of the investigation subcommittee for the 4/16 Sewol Families for Truth and a Safer Society, Jang established the 4/16 Institute for a Safer Society in the fall of 2021, where he has been working on ways to make Korea a safer place for all. 
 
Recently, he authored a book with other parents who lost children in the 2014 sinking of the ferry, titled “Asking for Accountability.” The book tells the history of the Sewol ferry disaster in the decade that followed that fateful day.
 
Few have endeavored more to uncover what happened on April 16, 2014, more than Jang, who has actively played roles in all three official investigations into the ferry’s sinking. The Hankyoreh spoke to Jang on Tuesday evening at his office in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, to ask him about what investigations over the past 10 years have managed to achieve, and what limitations they’ve faced.  

Special commission made possible by families and citizens
 
It was the parents of the high schoolers who died in the Sewol tragedy who got the investigation off the ground. The sparks lit by them and the wishes of the general public manifested in the Special Investigation Commission on 4/16 Sewol Ferry Disaster, which was active from March 2015 to September 2016. 
 
This was possible because a special act on the disaster was passed by the National Assembly in November 2014, thanks to hunger strikes by bereaved family members and the signatures of over 6 million citizens.
 
However, the Park Geun-hye administration tried to thwart all attempts to establish the commission. The most pressing issue facing the special commission became that of survival.
 
The meddling of the Park Geun-hye administration forced the commission to launch with a staff and budget that was drastically reduced from what the group preparing to launch it had requested.
 
Chairman Lee Suk-tae was appointed in March 2015, and it wasn’t until August of the same year that the commission was fully equipped with the staff and materials needed for its investigation.
 
Even after the commission’s establishment, the Blue House continued to egg on conservative groups to criticize the commission and blocked investigations into Blue House-related incidents, including investigations into then-President Park Geun-hye’s actions on the day of the tragedy.
 
It also claimed that the date of the commission’s formation was Jan. 1, 2015, when the special act on the Sewol ferry disaster was enacted, and forcibly disbanded the group on June 30, 2016, allowing it only three months to write a white paper.
 
The special act stipulated that the period of the commission’s activities is to be a maximum of 18 months (one year, plus a six-month extension) from the date the inquest was fully comprised, meaning that its activities should be calculated from August 2015, but the government arbitrarily disbanded the organization based on the date of the law’s implementation.
 
“The Blue House, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, and the officials dispatched to the commission worked together to obstruct the investigation, and the Park Geun-hye administration eventually forcibly disbanded it. In such a situation, it was difficult for the commission to produce tangible results,” Jang said.
 
The lack of a comprehensive report from the investigation hit people the hardest. 

“The three hearings held by the commission revealed several facts, and we made some progress. However, the families were disappointed that no official report was published,” Jang admitted. South Korean society’s lack of expertise in investigating tragedies was also a huge setback.
 
Commissions’ failure to reveal the reason behind the sinking
 
The salvaging of the Sewol on March 23, 2017, some 1,073 days after its sinking, proved to be a major step forward in the recovery of those who had been lost and further investigations into the truth.
 
The search operations that followed after the Sewol was brought to land were able to recover the remains of four of the nine people who had yet to be accounted for. It also allowed for investigators to inspect the ferry with their own two eyes. 
 
The need for a survey of the hull was raised as early as April 2015, when the government decided to bring the Sewol to the surface, and in March 2017, just before the ferry was lifted off the ocean floor and amid the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, the National Assembly passed a special act on inspecting the hull.

The result was the formation of the Sewol Ferry Hull Investigation Committee (March 2017-August 2018). Jang commented that “the biggest success of the hull investigation committee was the recovery of the ferry’s black box and the mobile phones of the victims, both of which contained footage that showed a more accurate picture of what occurred during the tragedy. The footage shows us the real-time process of the ferry sinking and how sharply the ferry was tilted during the accident.”

The Maritime Research Institute Netherlands, or MARIN, a third party commissioned to investigate the causes of the sinking, built a free-floating model of the Sewol to simulate the ferry’s submergence. The test allowed a real-life demonstration of the ship’s rudder, propeller and steering mechanisms. The tests effectively confirmed that the Sewol’s operators attempted to maneuver a sharp turn that led to the ferry’s tilt and eventual sinking.

After a series of internal debates regarding the actual causes of the sinking, the hull investigation committee decided to release two comprehensive reports. The first camp insisted on internal factors within the ship, such as the ship’s low stability and malfunctions in the steering gear, that led to the tragedy. The second camp pointed to the possibility of external shocks, such as a crash, being a possible cause of the sinking.

“The lack of time was the most frustrating thing. If there had been more time for debate, they could have compiled a single comprehensive report instead of releasing two,” Jang said.

“The two opposing factions fiercely collided during internal meetings. The proper thing to do would have been to institute an official hiatus to let things cool down, and then resume discussions when both sides had time to reflect on their positions. But there was no time for that,” Jang added.

“It would have been great if we’d had just one more month.”

The publishing of two separate reports reflects just how sharp the internal divide was.

“The hull investigation committee had people that took part in the special investigation commission formed prior as well as experts on marine navigation and ship engineering. Some of these experts would point to the lack of technical expertise present in committee members, saying things like ‘You aren’t even an expert on shipbuilding and engineering, what do you know about marine vessels?’ There was also a lack of consensus regarding the amount of responsibility that should fall on the Coast Guard and Sewol crew, and these disputes were never resolved,” Jang said. 

The lack of consensus within the hull investigation committee contributed to shortcomings within the Special Investigation Commission on Social Disasters (December 2018-September 2022), which was formed to continue the process of uncovering the truth behind the tragedy after the original special inquest was forced to disband. This committee focused its efforts on external forces playing a factor in the sinking.

“While a state entity has a responsibility to look into a variety of angles, the Special Investigation Commission on Social Disasters focused on something that should have been rejected from the beginning, which was external factors being the main cause of the accident,” said Jang. 

“The commission also focused excessively on the theory that the Sewol’s navigation path had been tampered with. But if that’s truly the case, it would essentially nullify all the investigations that had come before it. That would make it impossible to confirm that the Sewol attempted to make a sharp turn,” Jang said. 

“The problem was the confirmation bias on the part of those who believed that there was a vast conspiracy surrounding the sinking of the Sewol, and that thus the ship’s navigation route and digital devices had been tampered with to cover up that conspiracy,” Jang lamented. 

“Yet the social disaster commission was not without its results. The commission got access to documents drafted by institutions of power like the Blue House, the National Intelligence Service, and the Defense Security Command, and included the content of such documents in its report. There were also additional recoveries of digital footage,” Jang said. 

The Sewol was essentially a freight truck missing all its wheels

While the three investigative committees definitely produced results, there was still no definitive conclusion regarding the cause of the tragedy. There were disputes even among the surviving family members of the victims.

“We need to understand where the families are coming from. The vessel’s operators made illegal modifications to the Sewol, altered its equilibrium by draining ballast water, loaded it with cargo that exceeded its capacity, and then failed to properly secure that cargo. OK. But to the parent of someone who lost their child, that doesn’t necessarily serve as a sufficient explanation as to why their child is dead. It just seems too arbitrary. There has to be a bigger, more nefarious reason. If there are more nefarious forces at work, it allows us to feel less guilty about the deaths,” he said.

Jang thinks that the Sewol was at risk of capsizing and sinking at any moment — well before the tragedy. 

“If the Sewol were a car, it’d have been a 1-ton cargo truck missing all its wheels while carrying 10 tons of cargo, being driven by a driver who’s never sat behind its wheel before, who then goes and takes a sharp turn,” he said. 

“If there had been a scientist or a technician who could have kindly explained it in terms like these at the time, many families who lost loved ones would have been able to understand what happened,” he lamented. 

“Though there were countless trials and tribulations along the way,” Jang said, the last decade’s worth of investigations were “spent taking another step toward the truth.” He also hoped that the experiences gleaned from the investigations into the ferry’s tragic sinking would form the basis for a safer society.

“Investigations that punish wrongdoers and investigations meant to uncover the cause of a tragedy should be carried out differently,” Jang said. 

“Investigative agencies concentrate on substantiating charges, but that comes at the cost of forgoing concerns about safety. Even if we were to mete out punishments to every individual liable, that won’t bring about change for our society,” he said.

“We need investigations that contributed to changing regulations and changing the system,” he concluded.

By Jung Hwan-bong, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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