South Korean riot police were compelled to spray pepper and fire water cannons at protesters demanding a more forceful response from the government to the Sewol ferry disaster that left more than 300 dead or missing.
Just days after commemorating the first anniversary of the disaster on 16 April, protesters tried again to march to the Blue House, the presidential residence, from 18-19 April.
Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said about 13,000 police officers and 470 police buses were deployed to block the protesters’ path to the Blue House. Approximately 100 protesters were detained.
The rally was bigger than the one held two weeks ago as members of the country’s umbrella labour federation, the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions joined in. More rallies are planned this week.
A notice posted on the website of Solidarity for Sewol Ferry Tragedy, a group representing the victims’ families confirmed that the police blocked the path of the protesters as they blockaded the streets.
The notice, written in Korean, said, “Up till 02:00 h, the police restricted the movements of cars and people along the main streets of downtown Seoul. As the police, with their shields, advanced into downtown Seoul, it was as if martial law was in place. Citizens were not free to come and go.”
South Korean president Park Geun-hye was not in residence as she left for a state visit to Colombia on 15 April after paying her respects on Jindo Island, which was marked as a holding area for Sewol victims’ families while rescue efforts were under way.
Several police buses were also damaged in the violence, which led to nine protesters and three police being taken to the hospital while three protesters received first aid at the site.
The rally began at midday, with a crowd demanding the government allow an independent inquiry into the disaster and make an immediate decision to raise the Sewol ferry. The families of the victims are taking issue with the fact that 47 of the inquiry committee’s 90 members came from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and Korea Coast Guard, the two very organisations under fire for the botched rescue efforts.
The Sewol, carrying 476 passengers and crew, capsized during a routine Incheon-Jeju trip, after making a sudden sharp turn in the Maenggol Channel in the Yellow Sea. A total of 250 of the 304 dead or missing passengers and crew were Danwon High School Students. The ferry was later found to have been structurally unsound and overloaded with cargo.
The bodies of nine victims – Danwon High School teachers Yang Seung-jin and Go Chang-suk; Danwon students Huh Da-yun, Park Young-in, Nam Hyun-Cheol, and Cho Eun-hwa; a female passenger, Lee Young-sook; and a father-and-son pair, Kwon Jae-geun and Kwon Hyuk-gyu – remain missing.
President Park said on 16 April the government would begin preparing to hoist the 6,800-tonne Sewol and that the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries would publish a report about it by the end of April.