Clashes, pepper spray at rally for South Korea ferry disaster

SEOUL (AFP) - Mourners clashed with police in Seoul on Thursday after a mass rally drew 10,000 people to mark the first anniversary of South Korea’s Sewol ferry disaster that claimed 304 lives.

The violence capped a tense day of remembrance that saw victims’ families angrily snub President Park Geun-Hye even as she sought to defuse the situation by vowing to raise the sunken ferry to the surface.

Riot police used pepper spray to disperse mourners who were infuriated by police barricades erected to prevent them from laying flowers at a makeshift altar in central Seoul after the huge rally at City Hall ended.

Sporadic clashes and scuffles continued as thousands of people tried to find a way around a giant police cordon thrown across the area.

“This is outrageous,” said Lee Myong-Woo, one of the rally organisers.

“This was totally the police’s doing. We didn’t want any violence today, and there was no reason to stop us peacefully laying flowers at the altar,” he said.

Earlier in the day, President Park had flown to the southern island of Jindo – the nearest point to the site where the Sewol sank on April 16 last year – and made a televised statement voicing her deep sorrow at the tragedy.

Expressing particular sympathy for the families of the nine victims whose bodies were never recovered, Park said she would take all “necessary steps to salvage the ship at the earliest possible date.”

The announcement followed weeks of protests by victims’ families demanding a firm commitment on raising the 6,825-tonne ferry, despite the technical challenges and the estimated US$110 million (S$117 million) cost.

FAMILIES NOT SATISFIED

But the relatives were still not satisfied, saying Park had failed to give other assurances on their key demand of ensuring a fully independent inquiry with no government interference.

“President Park has repeatedly ignored our demands,” families’ spokesman Chun Myeong-Sun told the evening rally in Seoul.

“We will fight until the last moment to get answers and to make a safer society,” Chun said.

While largely blamed on the ship’s illegal redesign and overloading, the Sewol disaster laid bare deeper-rooted problems of corruption, lax safety standards and regulatory failings attributed to the country’s relentless push for economic growth.

Of the 304 who died, 250 were children from the same high school in Ansan, a city south of Seoul that was the focus of Thursday’s remembrance activities.

Flags flew at half mast and yellow ribbons fluttered from trees and lamp posts across Ansan, where sirens blared at 10am and residents bowed their heads for a minute’s silence and prayer.

Despite torrential rain, thousands of mourners passed through a memorial hall containing hundreds of black-ribboned, flower-ringed portraits of the dead students.

Parents and other relatives sobbed and beat their chests as they left messages, stuffed animals and favoured snacks under the framed photos.

“My son, I hope you’re happy up there. Mom misses you so much,” one message read.

A giant screen showed a slideshow of family pictures below a large banner that read: “We’re sorry. We love you. We won’t forget.”

STUDENTS REMEMBER CLASSMATES

Uniformed students from Danwon High School were among those who paid their respects, standing in tearful silence before the portraits of their dead classmates.

A formal memorial event had been scheduled for the afternoon in Ansan, but the victims’ families cancelled it, despite Park’s pledge to salvage the ferry.

Yoo Gyoung-Geun, another spokesman for the relatives, said there was anger that the President had not properly addressed the independent inquiry issue.

“I’m afraid her words were just meaningless,” Yoo said.

Public opinion has been largely supportive of the families, although some conservative groups say left-wing organisations have hijacked the cause in an effort to embarrass the government.

The President had intended to pay her respects at a special altar erected at Jindo harbour, but angry relatives had put up a barrier to block access.

And when Prime Minister Lee Wan-Koo went to Ansan on Thursday morning, he was turned away at the entrance to the remembrance hall by victims’ families.