On April 16, 2014, my son Su-hyeon Park died in the Sewol ferry disaster, along with 249 of his high school classmates. They were on an overnight trip. The world watched as the ship capsized, trapping and drowning children who moments before had been seen laughing on their mobile phones. A total of 304 people lost their lives.
Surely you remember the images of the capsizing ferry. Not a day has gone by that my wife and I haven’t thought of our son. He liked to play jazz on the piano. When he was little, he was fascinated by insects. Once we spent a whole day observing an anthill.
But the world has left Sewol. Months have passed, seasons have passed, years have passed. Yet much remains unknown about the sinking. We, the parents of the deceased children of Danwon High School, are still looking for answers.
The cause of the accident was never determineddespite many surveys. Many people found guilty of negligence in the sinking had their verdicts overturned. And many mysteries — such as and why President Park Geun-Hye disappeared from public view for hours as the tragedy unfolded – have never been cleaned.
Finally, grieving mothers and fathers like my wife and I were targeted by Korean military intelligencewho was spying on us and looking for dirt on us as part of a plan to blackmail us then we would stop demanding answers.
We were also attacked by right-wing politicians and internet trollswho accused us of wanting money or being agents of North Korea — a common accusation made by our Conservative party. Our experience echoed that of the parents of children killed in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, who were outrageously targeted by conspiracy theorists.
We did not stop. We couldn’t stop. This blatant violation of our rights has contributed to the dissolution of the intelligence service, the Defense Service Command, just as the hopelessly botched response to the sinking led to the dismantling of the South Korean Coast Guard. And our relentless candlelight vigils, defiant of intelligence agency intimidation tactics, helped bring down the park administration.
Yet, so many years later, we still don’t know why the Sewol sank. We don’t know why our beloved children died.
The last of three major inquiries – the so-called ‘Hull Inquiry’ – concluded in 2018 that the reason why the vessel suddenly heeled over could not be determined.
Two hypotheses were presented in the final report. One hypothesis was “internal” – that the poorly secured cargo, for example, had moved on the overloaded ship – and another was “external”. This second allowed the possibility that the Sewol had struck an unknown object, such as a submarine. The panel could not agree on which hypothesis to accept.
And so we have no answer. Still.
It was called the Hull Inquiry because it was the first inquiry undertaken after the ship was refloated, allowing for close inspection. This had long been resisted by the park administration. The rusty and warped Sewol was finally pulled from the seabed just 13 days after Park was removed on March 10, 2017.
We had high hopes when Park’s successor, Moon Jae-in, took office in 2017. His administration was born out of the hope of 10 million candles – the ones we parents lit and burned in the square. Gwanghwamun. But our hopes were extinguished.
Before being elected, when Moon was working as an opposition member of the National Assembly, he berated Park and others for obstructing the ratification of a special law to help Sewol victims. He even fasted with bereaved families. He criticized the decision to seal a report on Park’s whereabouts during the crucial hours of the sinking and quoted it – again and again – during his presidential campaign.
He won. And then? Nothing. I am not aware of a single act in Moon’s nearly five years in office that brings us closer to determining why the ferry sank.
Now he is stepping down. His successor, Yoon Suk-yeol, is a Conservative Party member, as is Park. We have learned not to expect much progress toward answers.
For many in the United States and around the world, Sewol is a dimly remembered tragedy that took place in a distant land and faded into history. But the story is not over. For us, it’s as alive as our beautiful children were on that fateful night when they set sail.
Jong Dae Park has devoted himself full-time to researching the sinking of the Sewol ferry since 2019.