Parents of South Korea ferry disaster victims shave their heads in protest

Relatives of victims of the Sewol ferry accident have their heads shaved during a protest ahead of the anniversary of the disaster, in Seoul on April 2, 2015. Around 50 mothers and fathers of victims of the disaster had their heads shaved to pus
Relatives of victims of the Sewol ferry accident have their heads shaved during a protest ahead of the anniversary of the disaster, in Seoul on April 2, 2015. Around 50 mothers and fathers of victims of the disaster had their heads shaved to push demands for an effective and genuinely independent inquiry. -- PHOTO: AFP 

SEOUL (AFP) - Around 50 mothers and fathers of victims of last year's South Korean ferry disaster had their heads shaved in central Seoul on Thursday, to push demands for an effective and genuinely independent inquiry.

With the first anniversary of the tragedy looming, the parents - including ten mothers - also called for the 6,825-tonne Sewol ferry to be brought to the surface where it sank off the southern island of Jindo on April 16 with the loss of more than 300 lives.

Ten at a time, the parents - wearing yellow, slogan-daubed barber's gowns - sat on plastic stools in the middle of the capital's main ceremonial thoroughfare.

"The truth never sinks," they chanted before volunteers stepped forward to shave their hair off with electric clippers.

On Wednesday, the government announced it would start handing out compensation payments to the families of the victims, including around US$380,000 (S$518, 453) for each of the 250 students who died.

The announcement infuriated victims' family groups, including those who had their heads shaved on Thursday.

"In the run up to the first anniversary of the tragedy, the priority for the government should not be monetary compensation but getting to the bottom of the incident, salvaging the wreckage and finding the last missing persons," they said in a statement.

Following months of political bickering, the South Korean Parliament passed a Bill in November initiating an independent investigation into the sinking.

But relatives have accused the government of seeking to influence the probe by appointing officials to key posts in the inquiry committee.

The overloaded and unstable Sewol was carrying 476 people - most of them high school students on an organised trip - when it capsized.

The tragedy sparked nationwide grief and outrage as it became clear that regulatory failings, official incompetence and the ship's illegal redesign were the main causes.

The official response to the disaster was widely criticised for being slow, uncoordinated and unfocused, and prompted President Park Geun Hye to vow a complete overhaul of national safety standards.

Nine victims of the disaster remain unaccounted for.

More than 50 people have been put on trial on charges linked to the sinking, including 15 crew members who were among the first to climb into lifeboats.

The Sewol's captain was jailed in November for 36 years for gross negligence and dereliction of duty, while three other senior crew members were sentenced to jail terms of between 15 and 30 years.