All search operations at the site of the Sewol ferry sinking will stop, officials said Tuesday, citing the increasing impossibility of finding the nine bodies still missing from the accident.
Life-threatening risks to divers also played a role in the decision, officials added. Water temperatures are colder due to the coming winter and the decomposing hull of the ferry could trap divers inside the sunken ship.
Families of the missing accepted the directive at a teary press conference, expressing thanks to the divers and the Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Lee Ju-young, marking the first time they publicly expressed thanks to a senior government official belonging to President Park Geun-hye's governing Saenuri Party.
The 6,800-ton Sewol ferry sank in waters off southwestern Korea on April 16, killing 304, most of them high school students on a school trip.
But the Coast Guard and senior government officials were heavily criticised in the days that followed for their handling of the rescue operations. The media, and especially the victims' families, criticised rescuers for not doing enough to save at least some of those trapped in the vessel.
The entrenched network of corruption among senior officials and maritime safety regulators was also cited as a prime cause of the accident, heightening the families' anger and distrust of the government.
President Park did her best to assuage the increasing discontent. In May, she shed tears during a nationally televised speech, and promised to punish those responsible. A representative of the families of those still missing from the April 16 Sewol ferry accident speaks during a press conference on Tuesday after government officials announced the end of salvage operations. (Yonhap)
Victims' families, however, have increasingly expressed frustration with the government's top executive ever since, with Park making few mentions of the families since the May speech.
But the families of those missing said that Oceans and Fisheries Minister Lee had earned their trust amid such an atmosphere of increasing skepticism.
"Mr. Lee always carried the photos of the missing in his pocket. We could feel his sincerity," a family representative said. "He earned our trust."
The maritime calamity still weighs heavily on the national consciousness. It sparked an ongoing national debate over the emphasis on economic growth and results rather than on respecting safety standards and the rule of law.
Officials said the Sewol would be raised out of the West Sea in the coming weeks. Authorities will need about one year to complete the job, and the cost is expected to hit 100 billion won ($92 million).