Families of Sewol victims fight for truth and justice may take decades. A similar tragedy in Britain shows that uncovering criminal behavior causing such widespread loss of life and prosecuting those responsible will be a drawn out battle.
The Hillsborough disaster of 1989 involved the death of 96 people, many of them teenagers, crushed at an overcrowded football stadium. Thousands of Liverpool fans turned out to watch their team play a semi-final, but ended up crammed and suffocating after police ignored safety concerns and allowed too many people into one section.
Many aspects of the Sewol tragedy mirror the failings in the build-up and aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. The families struggle to reveal the truth and bring justice to those responsible for the deaths of their loved ones has become the focus of both tragedies, and both groups are fighting the establishment in an uphill legal battle. The Hillsborough families’ struggle is a warning that the Sewol families may face a long wait in their campaign. Although the two major parties agreed to pass a bill this week, the families oppose the settlement and are campaigning for a stronger special law to be passed which would initiate an inquiry independent from the government, especially one with powers to prosecute.
“My conclusion is that we no longer can trust the government. Therefore, we cannot trust the government’s investigation,” says Kim Seong-sil, mother of Kim Dong-hyuk, a student who died in the Sewol disaster. “Our children are already dead. But we have others to protect and my own life to save. This is why we must pass the Special Law so as to give independent professionals the right to investigate and prosecute in order to punish those who are responsible.”
Individual criminal prosecutions are already ongoing, with the captain and three crew members currently standing trial for manslaughter through gross negligence. However there have been concerns that they will never hear a fair trial and details surrounding their training and instructions will never be heard in court.
A total of 43 officials and ten safety regulators from the Korean Shipping Association are also standing trial for various allegations of corruption, fraud and incompetence. But the families say that they want to see those at the very top held responsible
“This incident is not just about the working-level officials. It is about the entire country with no control tower to save people. When I am saying ‘control tower,’ this does not mean those people who follow orders, it means those people with authority, people at the Blue House; they are the ones to blame,” says Won Jae-min, lawyer for the victim’s families. “In order to prevent such an accident from reoccurring, we must reveal their faults.”
The families of the Hillsborough victims faced a similar battle to reveal the failings of senior officials and emergency response teams, but 25 years later they are still waiting for charges to be pressed against anybody involved. The first inquiry, initiated by the government, approved by Parliament and undertaken by Lord Taylor less than a year after the disaster, criticized the police and the stadium owners but not the emergency response. After the evidence was reviewed, the Director of Public Prosecutions sought no charges against any officials.
Even more devastating for the families, the longest inquest in British legal history concluded in March 1991 a verdict of ‘accidental death’ and judged that all the victims had died before the emergency services made it to the scene.
It was not until a 2012 panel, headed by the Bishop of Liverpool, that it was revealed that there had been a conspiracy by two separate regional police forces to cover up the truth regarding safety arrangements and response, with statements from officers and witnesses ignored or altered to exonerate those responsible. From the beginning the government, the police force and certain media had colluded to initiate a cover up, protecting those who were making the decisions. The families waited for 8,551 days for the ruling, and now that the ‘accidental death’ verdict has been quashed a full inquest is underway with more power to initiate prosecutions.
In both cases officials missed repeated warnings that a disaster was imminent, further frustrating the families. Hillsborough’s safety certificate was breached in previous games during the 1980’s, including the semi-final between the same teams a year before, and despite warnings an inexperienced policeman was put in charge of operations just weeks prior to the disaster.
Police also ignored the rapidly deteriorating situation as fans became cramped into the space that was obviously not large enough to hold them. The screams for help from inside the pen and the multiple TV angles available to those in the control tower prompted no action. The emergency response once the game was stopped and the injured flooded the field was inadequate, with only three ambulances arriving and fans themselves forced to treat the wounded on the pitch during the chaos. The 2012 report says nearly half of those that died could have been saved.
In striking similarity,those responsible for safety on the Sewol repeatedly allowed the ship to carry well over its safe tonnage, and the on board cargo weighed over three times its legal limit on the day of the sinking. The crew and the captain did not follow safety protocols and urged the victims to stay where they were before fleeing the ship themselves. The disaster response was also heavily criticized for being slow and giving out false information in the wake of the sinking. Just as in the case of Hillsborough, many may have been saved with adequate emergency response.
Sections of the media in both the UK and South Korea received harsh criticism from the public in the wake of the separate tragedies. Particularly in Britain, The Sun newspaper published an infamous article the day after called ‘The Truth’ in which they reported that the Liverpool fans were “acting like animals” and quoted a senior police officer saying “my men faced a double hell – the disaster and the fury of the fans who attacked us.” It was later revealed these quotes were fed to the media as part of the cover up and the facts went unchecked by the journalists.
Korean media was also accused of inaccurate and inappropriate reporting, forcing many of the major outlets to publicly apologize. A KBS reporter admitted staging a report on President Park’s visit to Jindo, and public trust in the media crashed to record lows.
One of the major concerns for the Sewol family group is the lack of safety reforms enacted since the incident. “The families have already gone through too much. They do not want others to go through the same pain,” says the lawyer of the victims’ families, Won Jae-min. “This is why they want to get to the bottom of the accident, punish those who are responsible, construct a concrete plan to prevent similar accidents from reoccurring, and make a safer country for everyone.”
Although the President disbanded the coastguard and is pushing through plans to create a National Security Office, no specific measures have yet been taken. The Korean Shipping Association, funded by the ship owning companies, continues to be in charge of inspecting the safety of all commercial boats.
The Hillsborough disaster shows how a disaster can force change. It played a significant role in completely changing safety at sporting events around Britain. The initial Taylor inquiry recommended sweeping reforms to stadium designs around the country, measures immediately adopted by the Football Association with the cooperation of the government.
By 1994, just five years after Hillsborough, major reforms were made in stadium design and safety, including the adoption of an all-seated policy for the major divisions. The government funded a third of all developments, in total spending 160 million pounds ($266 million) renovating football stadiums across the country. A third of football league clubs rebuilt their stadiums, with all others either partially rebuilding unsafe sections or renovating existing structures. The complete overhaul has been credited with the excellent safety record at sporting events across Britain since the tragedy.
Both disasters have left a deep scar in the national consciousness of their countries. Still 25 years on, the name Hillsborough resonates with those that remember that day. The long battle received praise from current Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons, who formally apologized to the families on behalf of the British government. “I am sure that all sides will join with me in paying tribute to the incredible strength and dignity of the Hillsborough families and the community which has backed them in their long search for justice,” he said. The Sewol families hope that they will not have to face a journey as long in their search for justice.