South Korean protesters attending a rally for the victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster were halted by police on Saturday as they marched to the presidential Blue House, according to a report out of Reuters. Authorities and civilians clashed in the streets over what victims' family members have perceived as broken promises by the government, which had originally agreed to raise the sunken ship by the one-year anniversary of the disaster. South Korean Yonhap news agency reported that 20 protesters had also been arrested.
In a statement on Thursday, President Park Geun-hye vowed to recover the ferry and continue search efforts for the remains of the nine missing victims whose bodies were never found, reported Yonhap. In prior news conferences, government officials had maintained that raising the ship would be too costly, estimating final totals to top out at around $110 million.
The fated Sewol ferry was en route from Incheon to a tourist destination in Jeju when it failed to make a sharp turn and capsized, killing 304 of the 476 passengers on board, including 250 Danwon High School students who were on a field trip. Survivors later shared agonizing tales of students lashing their lifejackets together for support and breaking their fingernails as they tried to scramble out of the sinking hull, reported NBC.
The protesters, who met at midday on Saturday, called for an independent inquiry into the matter in order to determine whether or not to raise the ferry. After police blockaded the march, they began to spray the crowd with water cannons and pepper spray to further halt their progress. The situation caught the attention of Amnesty International, which called the actions an "unnecessary use of force" in a statement. Said East Asia Researcher Arnold Fang:
The clampdown against an overwhelming peaceful protest is totally unjustified, unnecessary and an insult to both the victims of the Sewol ferry tragedy and their families. One year on from the accident, the authorities have shown their true colours and disdain for the rights of the families and their supporters to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
Wednesday, 200 family members of the victims gathered aboard a ship bound for the ferry's location to pay their respects on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy. Sprinkling white chrysanthemums and some of the victims' favorite snacks into the sea, many wept openly.
"I am so heartbroken. In such cold water, to think how cold she would have been," said Lee Jung-seob in an interview with Reuters, remembering her daughter, Hye-kyung, who was one of the 250 high school students on board. "As she ended her life, to think how she would have missed her mum and dad and her family ... my heart aches so much."
Many protestors at the demonstration expressed frustration over the fact that subsequent investigations into the incident proved it could have been avoided, reported The New York Times. "Corporate greed and lax government oversight" led to massive structural failings that might have otherwise prevented the huge toll in human casualties, they claimed. Many also pointed to the crew's safety instruction that the students remain in their cabins as a huge contributing factor in the number of deaths.
In November 2014, ferry captain Lee Joon-seok was convicted of gross negligence and sentenced to 36 years in prison. Thirteen fellow crew members were also charged with lesser sentences — but it wasn't enough for loved ones who felt that the government owed them answers that only the raising of the sunken ship could provide.
Said a grieving Park Eun-kyung, the aunt of missing student Huh Da-yun, in a statement on Thursday,
We believe the ship must be raised. We are certain she is inside the ship. We just have to take her out.