SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea says efforts to lift the Sewol ferry that sank more than two years ago may drag on into next year, with salvage operations hampered by poor visibility and the sheer scale of the undertaking.
The 6,825-tonne vessel was carrying 476 people when it capsized and sank off the south-western island of Jindo in April 2014.
In what swiftly became one of the country's worst maritime disasters, 304 people died - the majority of them high-school students on an organised trip.
The salvage project, carried out by a Chinese-led consortium, began in mid-June with the ambitiously optimistic target of bringing the ferry to the surface by the end of July.
With work suspended numerous times due to bad weather and other issues, the timeline for raising the Sewol was repeatedly put back to August, September, and then October.
In an interview with KBS TV aired Sunday, Maritime Minister Kim Young Suk suggested further delays lay ahead.
"In the worst-case scenario, we may not be able to complete the process this year," Kim said. "So we are in the process of readjusting the timing of the lift."
Workers so far have attached 20 steel "lifting" beams to the ship, but installing another six in the stern - which is partly buried in the sea bed and heavily silted up - has proved "extremely difficult," Kim said.
The sunken vessel is lying 40 metres under the surface and visibility is poor at the best of times, the minister added.
"I understand the pain of the victims' families ... but we assure you that we will lift the ship by any means necessary," he said.
Salvaging the Sewol was a key demand of the families who hope nine bodies still unaccounted for may yet to be recovered.
Once all 26 beams are installed, a giant crane is expected to lift the Sewol to a floating dock.
Probes into the Sewol disaster concluded it was largely a man-made tragedy - the cumulative result of an illegal redesign, an overloaded cargo bay, inexperienced crew and cozy ties between the ship operators and state regulators.
Captain Lee Jun Seok was sentenced to life in prison for "murder through wilful negligence" and sentences ranging from two to 12 years were handed down to 14 other crew members.