Families of Sewol victims shave their heads in protest

April 3, 2015
Family members of the victims of the April 2014 ferry disaster that claimed more than 300 lives have their heads shaved at Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul on April 2, 2015, to demand the vessel's recovery and the truth behind the accident before the discussion of compensation measures for the families. (Yonhap)

Family members of the victims of the April 2014 ferry disaster that claimed more than 300 lives have their heads shaved at Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul on April 2, 2015, to demand the vessel’s recovery and the truth behind the accident before the discussion of compensation measures for the families. (Yonhap)

By Jung Min-ho

Families of the Sewol ferry disaster victims have refused compensation the government offered for last year’s ferry sinking, which left more than 300 people dead.

At the Gwanghwamun Plaza, central Seoul, Thursday, the families criticized the government, saying it was “insulting the victims with money” and “not making the necessary effort” to find the truth behind the incident.

“What the government should do for now is salvage the sunken ferry to find out why it happened,” they said in a statement. “We urge the government to stop the compensation until then.”

This press conference came after the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries started receiving requests for compensation for bereaved families and 157 survivors on Wednesday.

The ministry said that compensation will be about 420 million won ($380,000) for each deceased student and 760 million won for each teacher who perished in the accident. Each person is also expected to receive about 300 million won in public donations and insurance payments.

Political attacks against the families ensued. Some right-wing politicians, media and activists tried to picture them as “stealers of taxpayers’ money.”

In protest, 52 of the victims’ family members decided to shave their heads.

“The government is trying to paint us as money-seekers that protest for more compensation,” they said. “This is to express our determination that we will never give up until investigators get to the bottom of the affair.”

The families also criticized the government’s attempt to revise the Sewol Special Act, which was passed at the National Assembly in November to investigate the incident.

If the law revised as planned, investigators will only be able to look into the case based on the government’s data and analysis. They will not be allowed to investigate how the data was gathered. Also, almost half of the investigators (42 out of 90) will be government officials.

“The revision is to disrupt the investigation rather than help it,” the families said. “Unless the government drops the revision plan, we believe the truth will never be known because salvaging the ferry will be impossible.”

The ferry sank on April 16, leaving 304 people dead. Most of the victims were high school students who were on a school trip to the southern resort island of Jeju. The bodies of nine of them have yet to be found.

The ferry’s captain has been jailed for 36 years for negligence. The disaster was also blamed on corrupt management and the inexperienced crew.

The disaster triggered nationwide grief, and led to severe criticism of safety standards and of the government’s handling of the rescue operation.

As the first anniversary of the incident nears, the Ministry of Education will designate a mourning period from April 13 to 17. A moment of silence is planned for April 16.

Religious communities such as churches and Buddhist temples also plan to hold ceremonies to commemorate the victims.

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