ANSAN, South Korea, April 16, 2015 (AFP) - Grief, anger and political tension coloured the first anniversary of South Korea's Sewol ferry disaster on Thursday, with complaints of continued official indifference towards the tragedy that claimed 304 lives.
Victims' families have rebuffed efforts by government leaders, including Prime Minister Lee Wan-Koo, to pay their respects, accusing them of hypocrisy and ignoring their demands for a fully independent inquiry.
The main memorial event was scheduled for the afternoon, in a remembrance hall not far from the local high school in Ansan which lost 250 of its students when the overladen Sewol sank on April 16 off the southern island of Jindo.
The hall created for the dead teenagers has been a focus of mourning ever since, but families of the victims were threatening to boycott Thursday's ceremony to push their inquiry call and demand that the 6,825-tonne Sewol to be brought to the surface.
The disaster, with the loss of so many young lives, stunned the entire country, and one year later there is still a deep sense of public grievance over the perceived inadequacy of the official response.
While largely blamed on the ship's illegal redesign and overloading, the accident laid bare deeper-rooted problems of corruption, lax safety standards and regulatory failings attributed to the country's relentless push for economic growth.
"Nothing has changed," the JoongAng Daily newspaper said in an editorial Thursday, adding that promised reforms of the government had fallen "way short of changing its often wicked ways".
Country still 'unsafe'
An editorial in the largest circulation Chosun Ilbo also concluded that "the country remains unsafe".
President Park Geun-Hye's approval ratings have only recently started to recover from the hit they took after the disaster, but she faced fresh criticism for choosing Thursday to depart on an official South America tour.
News that Park might first travel to Jindo in the morning prompted a small group of victims' relatives there to close down a small shrine in the harbour.
"They refuse to see her," a spokesman for the families, Ju Jae-Joon told AFP.
And when Prime Minister Lee went to Ansan on Thursday morning, he was turned away at the entrance to the remembrance hall by victims' relatives.
After the scheduled event in Ansan, large crowds were expected to turn out for an evening candlelight vigil in central Seoul.
Public opinion has been largely supportive of the families, although some conservative groups say left-wing organisations have hijacked the cause in an effort to embarrass the government.
The overloaded Sewol was carrying 476 people, including 325 students from the high school in Ansan, when it sank. Only 75 students survived.
A total of 295 bodies were recovered from the ferry, but nine remained unaccounted for when divers finally called off the dangerous search in November.
The families of those still missing have spearheaded the calls for the ferry to be brought to the surface - an operation that would cost an estimated $110 million (S$149 million).
More than 100 relatives took a boat to the site of the disaster on Wednesday and threw white flowers into the waters, along with yellow paper boats and sweets and snacks that their children liked.