Father of child who died in Korean ferry disaster: 'I beg the pope to call for investigation'

Kim sits under tent having fasted for 30 days (photo by Tom Fox)
This article appears in the Francis in Korea feature series. View the full series.

Kim Young-oh sits under a white tent in the middle of a downtown Seoul plaza. His mission: to force the government of President Park Geun-hye to pass legislation to set up an independent investigation and prosecution for those responsible for the death of 17-year-old daughter.

Kim Yoo Min died April 16 when a Japanese-built, Korean-owned ferry capsized off the South Korean coast, taking the lives of 300, mostly secondary school students on their way to a weekend island jaunt.

He has been fasting for 30 days and is visibly very weak.

The ferry sinking is a national tragedy. Koreans are outraged, baffled and upset that there has been no official government call for an investigation into the tragedy.

Labor groups, nonprofits, and religious, including many Catholic priests, sisters and lay leaders, have actively supported the ferry victims' families in their calls for answers.

But the answers have not come.

That fact that no investigation has been officially called for, let alone started, has furthered suspicions that the government is covering up something important. Supporters of the families of the ferry victims suspect an investigation would find corporate and government corruption at the center of the disaster.

As the Tuesday afternoon sun was drawing shadows on the plaza, with temperatures in the 80s and with hundreds of relatives of those who died in the disaster sitting in front of Kim, the plaza stirred with quiet, reverential energy.

The plaza stretches the length of several football fields. At one end, the protesters have staked camp. At the other end, Pope Francis will lead a ceremony to beatify 124 Korean martyrs on Saturday.

The area where Kim and other ferry victim relatives and their supporters occupy is supposed to be reserved for some of the hundreds of thousands expected to come out for the ceremony, one of the highlights of the papal visit.

It was not clear Tuesday afternoon if or when police might arrive to clear out the protesters. Some protesters said quiet negotiations between them and government officials were underway.  

With foreign media coming to town in the hundreds and the South Korean government wanting to show its best face, protesters do not think they will be forcibly moved, yet do not rule it out.

Protests are common in Korea. Catholic protests are equally common. Catholic sisters, priests and leaders of lay groups often gather on behalf of democracy and in support of the displaced and marginalized by a rapidly changing society.

So it was not surprising dozens of priests and sisters had staked out two white tents near the ferry victim families. On Tuesday afternoon, they sat quietly, some praying, some sitting in silence under the tents.

As Kim sat, legs crossed, a medical attendant pierced the index finger on his left hand to test his blood sugar level. Those attending to him are increasingly concerned for his health. He has not consumed food for 30 days and is the last of the family protesters to fast. Others fell ill and were taken away to recover.

Kim's eyes were fixed and glazed. He struggled to stand up to greet me. I, in turn, gestured that he need not move. But he lifted himself up and, in a welcoming gesture, bowed slightly before me. I bowed as well. We sat down together for a brief interview. I was told to keep it short so as not to further sap his limited energy.

I felt, sitting next to him, that I was in a sacred space. Like so many others across the world, I read with heavy heart four months back about the sinking of the MV Sewol on route from Incheon to Jeju island. As I parent, I could only imagine the deep pain Kim and other parents have been feeling.

I began the interview by offering my sympathies, telling Kim that people around the world are mourning with him and offering prayers for the families who lost children.

I asked him why he was on the hunger strike. 

He said he wanted the government to pass a law calling for an independent investigation. "I want this not just for my family, but so that other families will have the right to investigations in the future and so tragedies like this will not happen again," he said.

"Why no investigation?"

"They have no political will," he answered. "They want to make our children official heroes, but this is not what the families want. They don't want this; they don't want compensation; we want an investigation."

"What message do you want to deliver to the international community?" I asked.

"I want the entire international community to know the facts about this tragedy as well as put pressure on the South Korean government to investigate so they can pass the law the families really want." He then added: "I want to know why my daughter died."

I noted that Pope Francis would come to this plaza in three days and asked him what he wants of the pope.

He replied: "I beg the pope -- I beg him -- to put pressure on the Park government to begin an independent investigation. I know Pope Francis focuses on human rights. He is a good man. I think he can pressure the Park government."

Before ending the interview, I asked him to recall one thing about his daughter.

Closing his eyes before continuing, he paused, then said, "I remember my daughter hugging me from behind, calling me, 'Father, Father' every morning."

[Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher. His email address is tfox@ncronline.org.]

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