Dispute lingers over Sewol protest

Protesters shout slogans during a rally demanding an independent inquiry into last year's Sewol ferry disaster, in central Seoul on April 25, 2015.

One year since the sit-in Sewol demonstration began in central Seoul, controversy persists over the bereaved families' stay-in protest, while no progress has been made on the special investigation into the ferry sinking that claimed the lives of more than 300 in April last year.

Family members of the victims have been staging a tent protest in Gwanghwamun Square since the father of teenage victim Kim Yoo-min started a hunger strike last year to urge the government to thoroughly investigate the deadly accident.

While Kim ended the hunger strike after 46 days, the stay-in strike in the heart of Seoul has become a symbol of their fight as tens of civic activists, religious figures and even some politicians have joined the movement. Pope Francis also visited the site to comfort the bereaved families last year during his trip to Korea.

Some right-wing activist groups, however, have continually urged the Sewol families to stop the demonstration, claiming that they are illegally occupying public space.

The dozen tents set up in the square have blocked the area and the fountain that typically operates from April. Tens of activists, religious groups and a few family members of the victims still spend their days and night in the tents.

"The rules and regulations must be equally imposed to all. Allowing the occupation over a year for those who didn't get the official permit is problematic. The Sewol people monopolised the square where everyone should be able to enjoy their freedom of speech," said conservative group Citizens United for Better Society.

Under the law, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has full authority to allow public events or strikes in Gwanghwamun Square. Anyone wishing to hold an event is required to submit an application seven days prior.

Technically, the bereaved families have never been permitted to stage the strike in the public site. The city government, however, practically approved of their actions. It even provided 13 tents to the families, citing safety concerns last year.

Some extremist groups sued Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and two other city officials in August last year, arguing that allowing the strike is "dereliction of their duty." The probe is still underway.

Despite the growing opposition, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon has defended the demonstration.

"I don't understand what the big deal is about allowing the tent strikes, considering the agony and deep sorrow of the bereaved families," Park said in a press conference in May.

As part of the efforts to reduce the public inconvenience while keeping the spirit of the Sewol protest, the city and the protest participants agreed to remodel the protest site.

Starting from Saturday, the main protest area blocking the public fountain site was cleared. Tents that had mostly been used for the stay of the protestors transformed into a place for a public altar, exhibitions of Sewol photographs and videos and a space for other events to remember the tragedy.

"The remodeling aims to return Gwanghwamun Square to the public while keeping the protest spirit. We didn't expect the protest would continue this long. The fight will go on until the Sewol issue is solved," an official of the protest-leading civic group 416 Solidarity told The Korea Herald.

Gwanghwamun Square is not the only place where the bereaved families face opposition.

Dozens of residents in Paengmok Harbor in Jindo, South Jeolla Province, which is near the shipwreck site, filed a complaint to the Anticorruption and Civil Rights Commission late last month to ask for the removal of the vestiges of the Sewol tragedy in their neighborhood, citing business damage.

Since the deadly accident happened, a group memorial altar was set up and yellow ribbons were hung along the port to mourn the deaths of the victims.

Residents argued that the more than a year of mourning has significantly affected their businesses, adding that the government needs to ensure their mental and financial compensation.

Despites such opposition, the Sewol victims' family members continue their fight to investigate the cause and poor management of the tragedy.

The controversial Sewol bill aiming to conduct a special probe into the deadly accident finally passed the National Assembly last November, but new controversy arose over a decree in the bill that protesters claimed would enable the government to possibly meddle in the investigation.

Debate also brewed over the budget for the special Sewol committee.

Activists have strongly lambasted the government for failing to allocate a budget for the special committee.

The committee, which began operation this January, had been running on expenses provided by the maritime ministry until the subsidies were suspended in April, according to news reports.

On Friday last week, the parliamentary committee on agriculture and maritime affairs agreed to allow a supplementary budget of 64 billion won (S$77 million) for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries only if the budget for the Sewol special committee is allocated, although Saenuri Party members initially opposed the idea.