South Korea says raising Sewol ferry would cost $150 million

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea said Wednesday it would cost 120 billion won (S$150 million) to raise the Sewol ferry, as pressure grows to salvage the vessel before the first anniversary of its sinking.

The 6,825-tonne passenger ship sank off the southwest coast on April 16 last year with the loss of more than 300 lives - most of them high school students.

Ahead of next week's first anniversary of the tragedy, hundreds of parents of the dead students - some with their heads shaved and clad in white mourning robes - marched 35 kilometres to Seoul from their home town of Ansan over the weekend.

They were joined by hundreds more supporters for a rally in the capital on Sunday that called on the government to bring the sunken vessel to the surface and ensure a fully independent inquiry into the disaster.

A total of 295 bodies were recovered from the ferry, and nine victims remained unaccounted for when divers finally called off the dangerous search of its interior last November.

President Park Geun Hye promised Monday to "actively consider" raising the Sewol, taking into account the opinions of the relatives and salvage experts.

At a briefing on Wednesday, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said the salvage operation - if approved - would cost around 120 billion won.

"And that is only an estimate, as the final cost would be greatly dependent on weather conditions, technological uncertainties... etc," said senior ministry official Yeon Yeong Jin.

Yeon said the government had already spent 185 billion won - most of it on the lengthy search and rescue operation and financial support for victims' relatives - and had budgeted a further 140 billion won in future compensation payments to families.

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.

Park's administration was widely criticised for its response to the disaster, and her approval ratings have only just begun to recover.

After months of political bickering, parliament passed a bill in November initiating an independent investigation into the sinking.

But relatives have accused the government of trying to influence the probe by appointing officials to key posts in the 17-member inquiry committee.

More than 50 people have been put on trial on charges linked to the disaster, 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.