A father's fight for answers: What caused South Korean ferry sinking?

By Elizabeth Shim
In this undated photograph, Kim Young-oh, center, poses with his daughter Kim Yu-min, left, and Kim Yu-na. Kim lost his older daughter in the Sewol ferry sinking last year. He is still seeking answers from the South Korean government on the cause of the tragedy. Photo courtesy of Kim Young-oh
1 of 3 | In this undated photograph, Kim Young-oh, center, poses with his daughter Kim Yu-min, left, and Kim Yu-na. Kim lost his older daughter in the Sewol ferry sinking last year. He is still seeking answers from the South Korean government on the cause of the tragedy. Photo courtesy of Kim Young-oh

SEOUL, March 11 (UPI) -- Kim Young-oh, a divorced father of two, remembers the phone call he received on the morning of April 16 from his former wife.

"Are you watching the news?" she had asked in a worried tone.


Kim had not slept at all. In fact, he had been awake all night, rounding off a long night shift at an auto-parts plant, finishing work at 7:30 a.m. Before returning home for some rest, he had stopped by his neighborhood fitness center where he received the unexpected phone call.

"There's been a ferry accident," she said. "And our daughter is on that boat."

Kim turned to the nearest television. The broadcast confirmed the news.

But nearly a year later, Kim still doesn't know the whole story.

The sinking of the South Korean ferry Sewol killed more than 300, including Kim's 17-year-old daughter, Kim Yu-min. He said the victims' families have not received a conclusive explanation of what happened from the government. Since the November passage of a special bill that was supposed to pave the way for an investigation, efforts to establish the probe have only encountered obstacles.


Overloaded cargo contributed to the capsizing of the boat when the captain made a sharp turn off the coast of Jindo, on the southwestern tip of the Korean peninsula, the South Korean news agency Yonhap reported. But why he made that abrupt--and fatal--change in direction has yet to be determined.

The ferry's captain, Lee Joon-seok, was convicted of gross negligence in November, and sentenced to 36 years in prison for abandoning the vessel and leaving confused passengers to fend for themselves.

Most recently, an official probe into the accident's cause has been hobbled by fractious disputes between South Korea's political parties over the investigation committee's structure.

Kim told UPI that victims' families have been accused of wasting taxpayers' money even though they seek the passage of improved safety regulations.

For Kim, a deeply personal fight has become a public affair.

Kim became a prominent figure when he staged a 45-day hunger strike in July and August. A daily subsistence of water and salt left him emaciated. After losing nearly 30 pounds, he fell ill and was hospitalized.

In response to his activism, Kim said some South Korean conservatives have lashed out at him, labeling him a pro-North Korean agitator, a dangerous accusation that pits Kim against South Korea's draconian National Security Law responsible for the dissolution of a left-wing political party in December.


His request for a direct meeting with President Park Geun-hye was routinely denied. But he briefly made world headlines when he secured a meeting with Pope Francis, whose trip to South Korea was marked by gestures of support for the families of Sewol victims.

Daniel Schwekendiek, an economic historian at South Korea's Sungkyunkwan University, said the country's position as one of the world's poorest countries while facing a communist North Korea made economic growth the most important priority for South Korean leaders. Making haste, though, sometimes came at the cost of public safety, with the collapse of a Seoul bridge in 1994 and a department store in 1995 still remembered as some of the biggest public disasters on record.

"Large-scale disasters such as the sinking of the Sewol tragically remind us that the economic versus social modernization gap has not been closed," Schwekendiek told UPI.

Yonhap reported in October that diminishing passenger revenue prompted the ship operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co., to overload cargo against regulations.

But Schwekendiek said that past disasters were not followed by critical voices that highlighted the negative effects of aggressive business interests.

Born into rural poverty

Like many South Koreans in the 1960s, Kim Young-oh, 46, was born into rural poverty, in an area that was so destitute there was "no access to transportation. Nothing to eat."


Kim, along with his siblings, was sent away from home to a city where he could attend school. He dropped out at age 15 – beginning what he said were decades of trouble with money.

When his first daughter, Yu-min, was born, Kim was beginning to struggle with his clothing store. He had borrowed substantially from banks, but was unable to pay his bills. He declared bankruptcy around the time of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

It was money troubles, Kim said, that led to his divorce in 2003. After decades of wandering from one temporary job to another, in 2012 Kim had a breakthrough: a full-time position with benefits.

"I remember telling my daughter then," he said, "that I had good news...telling her that she can go to college now. We can afford to send her to university."

Kim said Yu-min was good with numbers, excelling in her math classes. Two months before the ferry sinking, they talked about a career in banking after graduation.

Things were looking up for his family, Kim said.

In search of Yu-min

On the morning of the accident, Kim and his ex-wife rushed to Jindo, where the rescue and recovery efforts were taking place.


"It took us eight days to be reunited with Yu-min," he said, recalling identifying the body and complying with DNA tests before they could claim her.

Kim said the rescue efforts were hindered by red tape, with rescuers denied entry into the waters to search for survivors and a lack of updates from the South Korean Coast Guard that left families speculating about the causes for the rescue's delay. Families like Kim's became frustrated, he said, as efforts were postponed.

According to separate reports from Stars and Stripes and Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun, the South Korean government declined offers of help from the U.S. Navy and Japan's Coast Guard.

Victims' families have sought answers about their government's inaction, but none have been given.

Park Chan-un, a law professor at Hanyang University, told UPI that it will not be easy to move forward with special investigations because South Korea's governing party has delayed providing answers that satisfy the victims' families, and a general mood of opposition and resentment has formed toward the activists in the media and among conservative South Koreans.

Kim, meanwhile, said he will push on for reform and answers from his government about regulatory oversight, a matter that the Korea Herald reported is being addressed in a new anti-corruption bill.


According to the Herald, initial findings revealed South Korean maritime officials received kickbacks from the Sewol's ship operator which may have contributed to the ferry violations.

"Before the tragedy, I had no idea how lax Korea's safety regulations were," Kim said.

"I have lost my daughter, but at the same time, I'm proud. Yu-min died for a movement to make Korea a better and safer society."

Latest Headlines