Recovering sunken ferry to heal or harden South Korea's rift

Days after South Korea's president was removed from office, a ferry was lifted slowly from the waters where it sank three years earlier — a disaster that killed more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren, and ignited public fury against Park Geun-hye and became a nationally polarizing issue.

The ferry's recovery has raised the question of whether that process can bring closure to a country that was roiled and split by the ferry sinking. The quick answer would be: "Not completely." And the ship's recovery is now political fodder ahead of a May election to choose a new president.

What many South Koreans first want to know is whether the bodies of the nine missing victims are inside the hoisted Sewol wreckage and whether fresh causes of the sinking can be found.

Finding the bodies could help ease the pains of families desperate to have back their loved ones' remains, though some critics of the recovery effort say the bodies may have already been swept away. Some relatives went to the scene on boats to watch the salvage work that began Wednesday.

It's uncertain whether the recovered ship will reveal something totally new regarding what happened on the day of the sinking.

After interviewing crew members, shipping regulators and coast guard officers, government investigations already blame the disaster on a mix of factors such as overloaded cargo, improper storage, poor rescue efforts, negligence by crew members and corruption by the ship's owners. But many grieving family members and their liberal supporters believe the conservative Park government was trying to cover up deeper causes of the sinking amid unconfirmed rumors swirling on South Korean internet sites.

One rumor speculates the ferry collided with a submarine, while another alleges the Sewol was overloaded with rebar to be used for the contentious construction of a navy base on Jeju.

Distrust of the government's conclusion is partly, perhaps mostly, associated with the sharp conservative-liberal divide in South Korean society resulting from the country's turbulent modern history marked by Japan's colonial rule and the 1950s war that divided the Korean Peninsula into two rival countries.

In 2010, a conservative-led government hoisted a sunken South Korean warship and blamed North Korea for torpedoing it near their disputed sea boundary. Many liberals didn't believe it and similar unconfirmed rumors flared. Some liberals cited a history of fabrication of evidence by past conservative, authoritarian governments including one headed by Park's dictator father.

Bereaved families of the Sewol victims and liberal activists have been camping at a main Seoul boulevard near Park's office for more than two years, calling for a stronger investigation into the disaster and for higher-level officials to be held accountable.

Park's supporters have accused them of politicizing the issue and opposed the use of taxpayers' money to salvage a civilian ship. Some ultra-conservative citizens even made a display of eating fried chicken and pizza in front of the victims' relatives who were hunger striking at the boulevard.

As the Sewol was being raised from waters, South Korean liberals escalated political offensive against Park, who was removed by a March 10 court ruling over a separate corruption scandal.

"While looking at the salvaging works and the Sewol surfacing for the first time in 1,073 days, which was conducted swiftly after Park's ouster, many people have resentments and questions on the incompetent, irresponsible government," said Lee Jae-jung, a spokesman for the main liberal opposition Democratic Party.

On Tuesday, a day before the Sewol salvaging began, Park was summoned to a Seoul prosecutors' office for questioning over allegations that she colluded with a confidante to extort money from companies and committed other wrongdoing. Analysts say her possible arrest could worsen the divide, given three of her supporters have died following clashes with police after the court removed her.

Some experts say the ship's salvaging could re-ignite public debate about many Sewol issues, such as criticism that Park was out of contact for several hours on the day of the sinking. Others say the Sewol issue won't largely sway the results of the election as surveys show Park's liberal rival, Moon Jae-in, is already expected to win the vote easily.

"Lots of criticism will be leveled on Park and it will be burdensome for conservatives," said Chung Jin-young, a professor at Kyung Hee University. "I don't think the Sewol issue will be settled now (upon its retrieval) ... though it will be forgotten by many one day as time passes."


Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.