The government on Wednesday approved plans to recover the Sewol ferry that sank off the country's southwestern coast last April and left over 300 dead or missing.
The salvage operations ― expected to take between 12 to 18 months and cost at least 100 billion won (S$124 million) ― is expected to commence as early as September, according to the pan-government disaster control office.
The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries recently conducted a technical review on salvaging the sunken ship and submitted its recommendation on Monday to retrieve the vessel in one piece.
It was to minimise the risk to any bodies of the nine missing people from the sinking, which are still believed to lying in the ship. The search mission is the top priority for the government, officials said.
"After careful deliberation, we've confirmed the Maritime Ministry's plan," said Minister of Public Safety and Security Park In-yong who heads the pan-government headquarters.
"The key points for consideration (for the operation) were as following: minimizing the possibility of losing bodies of the missing victims or damaging the ship, sufficient measures and contingency plans on possible safety hazards during the operation, plans to prevent pollution including how to contain the residual fuel, and other follow-up measures after the operation is complete,"
The Maritime Ministry will start selecting companies to salvage the ship, which is expected to weigh as much as 15,000 tons considering the weight of water, mud and cargo.
Since the operation of such a magnitude is unprecedented in South Korea, a consortium of local and global companies is expected to be formed to carry it out.
The government will use the combination of offshore cranes and submersible floating dock to haul it out of the water.
Officials from the Safety Ministry said they have yet to finalize the details of the plan.
Rival parties welcomed the decision. The ruling Saenuri Party said it was "glad" that the government had swiftly reached its decision. The party also urged the government to make sure additional safety-related accidents would not occur during the operation.
The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy also voiced satisfaction at what it called "an obvious but belated" decision. "Salvaging the Sewol is something that has to be done, but it was decided a year after the disaster.
A lot of change seems to hinge on what President Park Geun-hye says," said NPAD floor spokeswoman Seo Young-kyo.
Families of those who lost their lives in the accident welcomed the decision, and urged the government to discard an enforcement decree it introduced last month in the Sewol special bill.
They fear that the new rules could interfere in an independent probe into its botched rescue mission as the ministry stated that it would deploy a number of public servants to the investigation team.
They are also sceptical of the government's compensation plan announced earlier this month, saying that the focus should be on "uncovering the truth" behind the sinking, instead of monetary promises.
On Tuesday, the government passed another financial aid plan for everyone who had boarded the ferry on the day of the accident.
It will provide 2.59 million won to every four-member household who lost a family member in the accident, and half that amount to families of those who were rescued.
Medical support for the physical and mental damage sustained by victims and their families will be provided until March 28.