Controversy arises over removal of Gwanghwamun memorial hall for ferry disaster victims - Korea Times
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Controversy arises over removal of Gwanghwamun memorial hall for ferry disaster victims

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People visit the memorial hall for victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking accident, set up in Gwanghwamun Square, central Seoul, April 16, the seventh anniversary of the disaster. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
People visit the memorial hall for victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking accident, set up in Gwanghwamun Square, central Seoul, April 16, the seventh anniversary of the disaster. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

By Bahk Eun-ji

It has been seven years since the Sewol ferry sank in 2014, but still many people visit the memorial hall set up in Gwanghwamun Square, central Seoul, hoping that such a tragic accident will never happen again.

Above all, many also hope that all the facts of the accident, including the exact cause of the sinking and the rescue authorities' inadequate response, will be thoroughly investigated, as not only the bereaved family members but also many citizens still believe not everything has been uncovered.

The memorial hall, however, is facing demolition as part of the city government's Gwanghwamun renovation project, a move protested vehemently by the bereaved families.

The current hall was set up in April 2019 to commemorate the tragic accident, in which the 6,285-ton Sewol ferry sank in waters off the southwestern coast near Jin Island, South Jeolla Province, on April 16, 2014, claiming the lives of 304 people, mostly high school students on their way to Jeju Island for a school field trip.

Before the installation of the memorial hall, the victims' families had been maintaining a temporary memorial altar and other commemorative facilities at the square with dozens of tents, starting from July 2014, calling for the government's transparent and precise investigation into the tragic accident.

In 2019, ahead of the fifth anniversary of the disaster, the Seoul Metropolitan Government ― which was led by then-mayor Park Won-soon from the liberal Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) ― and the families agreed to remove the tents and instead set up a 20-meter-long wooden structure that could be used as a memorial altar and place where people could learn about the disaster.

A person walks to the memorial hall for the victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking, at Gwanghwamun Square, central Seoul, in this April 15, 2019 photo. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
A person walks to the memorial hall for the victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking, at Gwanghwamun Square, central Seoul, in this April 15, 2019 photo. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

However, according to the 416 Global Network, a group of bereaved family members and civic group members, the city government notified the group on July 5 that the facility would be demolished, and asked them to remove the portraits and other material about the victims from July 21 to 25, so that the removal work can begin on July 26.

The removal of the memorial hall is part of the ongoing restructuring of Gwanghwamun Square, which began last November to widen and reshape the pedestrian paths and reroute traffic around it.

In response, the group members said that it would be possible to relocate the memorial space temporarily to another place until construction is completed, and that they are willing to discuss the location in accordance with the purpose of the square's restructuring.

"But we are disappointed that the city government has neither considered such options, nor suggested a meeting with the mayor for discussion," the group said in a statement.

"We do not want the city government to set up a memorial stone or tree. The exhibition space is a place for citizens to remember and mourn the tragedy, although the city's unilateral decision concerning its removal is nothing but a sign of their refusal to memorialize the country's worst accident."

The removal decision has come despite talks between the two sides since July of last year.

In the process, the families maintained that the memorial space can be moved during the construction process but that it should be set up again in Gwanghwamun Square after the process is completed.

But the city government has refused to rebuild the space at the square, and instead offered to set up a memorial stone or trees.

The city government says that there is no problem with the demolition because, when the memorial hall was installed in 2019, it had agreed with the bereaved families to operate the facility temporarily until December 2019, considering the schedule of the Gwanghwamun Square renovation project.

Students visit the southwestern port of Paengmok on Jin Island, South Jeolla Province, to commemorate the victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking, in this April 16, 2019 photo. Korea Times file
Students visit the southwestern port of Paengmok on Jin Island, South Jeolla Province, to commemorate the victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking, in this April 16, 2019 photo. Korea Times file

However, at the end of 2019, former Mayor Park decided to keep the space around for another year in consultation with the bereaved families, pushing back the removal date to December 2020. But Park killed himself in July 2020 after a sexual harassment allegation was raised against him, and incumbent Mayor Oh Se-hoon from the conservative main opposition People Power Party took office in April of this year.

"We met several times since July of last year with the families to discuss the removal issue, and we told them the space should be cleared when the reconstruction of the square begins," a city official said.

The official also said that there is "no possibility" of relocating the memorial space to somewhere else in Seoul, as a 9,962-square-meter memorial facility will be built by the central government in Ansan Hwarang Park in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, where most of the victims lived, by 2024.

"From the perspective of the bereaved families, the removal of the space might be disappointing and we fully sympathize with them, but we are only proceeding with the previously planned process and have no other intentions," the official said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers of the DPK criticized the city government's decision.

Lee Nak-yon, the former chairperson of the DPK and one of the party's presidential hopefuls, said in a social media post, "I felt anger at Seoul's unilateral decision, because it is too harsh for the bereaved families who are still in pain. Remembering the Sewol ferry disaster is not a matter of politics or a political symbol, but of the nature of human beings sympathizing with another's suffering."

Lee then urged Seoul Mayor Oh to withdraw the plan to remove the facility and talk with the bereaved families to come up with alternatives.

Another presidential hopeful of the DPK, former prime minister Chung Sye-kyun, also said, "The sinking of the Sewol ferry became a trauma that remains in the hearts of the people, and such a move to forget the tragedy is not the way to overcome this trauma."



Bahk Eun-ji ejb@koreatimes.co.kr


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