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South Koreans Mark Ferry Disaster Anniversary


South Korea is marking a grim anniversary. It's been a year since a ferry accident that killed more than 300 people.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

INSKEEP: The gentle sound you just heard is from a prayer ceremony at a historic temple in central Seoul. Ceremonies like this are taking place in Christian churches, too, and are being held all across the country. NPR's Elise Hu is in Seoul where these remembrances take place amid continuing political battles over the disaster. Elise, welcome to the program.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Would you remind us just what happened a year ago today?

HU: Well, those hundreds died when the Sewol ferry, which was bound from Incheon in the north to Jeju Island in south, capsized and sank. Most of the victims were actually students from a single high school. So this obviously sent the country into deep grief but also outrage since the rescue effort was largely considered bungled.

INSKEEP: Was anybody held responsible for that?

HU: A jury did find the Sewol captain guilty of negligence in abandoning the ship. He has been sentenced to more than 30 years in jail. The coast guard here was also disbanded and swallowed into other agencies because of that rescue effort. Still, that's not enough closure if you ask a lot of the families who lost loved ones.

INSKEEP: Why not?

HU: For one, nine people are still missing. And the ship is still at the bottom of the ocean. Families have been calling for it to be lifted out of the water to help finalize recovery and give them that closure that they're asking for. And just a few hours ago, the South Korean president decided that yes, the state would help salvage that ship. But families also want a serious outside look at what factors like official mistakes and lack of enforcement may have led to the accident in the first place, mainly so this sort of thing never happens again. But those pleas, Steve, are getting caught in a bitter political back-and-forth. The grieving families are accused by Korean conservatives of asking too much of the government and not just moving on.

INSKEEP: You know, Elise, I'm thinking if this happened in the United States, it would be investigated. There's a National Transportation Safety Board made up of professionals who try to figure out why things go wrong. Why would there be no answer at this point, a year later into the ferry crash and the causes of it?

HU: A lot of it is politics. The prosecutors who prosecuted the ferry captain and the ferry owners did do some investigating. And that was considered some sort of closure at some level. But no, of course, the government, which was supposed to look into this or hire a panel to do so, failed to do so because of disagreements about who was on the panel, how much authority they had, how much it would cost. So it may happen, but it's unclear when it'll start.

INSKEEP: Where does the country go from here?

HU: Well, there's no end in sight for the parents, of course, who were calling for that investigation. And some safety standards have improved - like, cargo actually has to be weighed now. Before this incident, it wasn't getting weighed as ferries were taking off for the waters.

But social critics we've talked to say these kind of incidents are actually part of the difficulty in a country where there's been rapid economic growth. South Korea was one of the poorest nations in the world just a few decades ago. Now it's one of the richest. But the question is - so all of this rapid economic growth came at what cost? One sociologist I spoke with compared it to a country that went from childhood to adulthood and just skipped adolescence. And he says these safety disasters are a consequence of that.

INSKEEP: Elise, thanks.

HU: You bet.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Elise Hu in Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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