Why you should care
Because a father’s love for his daughter is unwavering.
Sören Kittel is a journalist for Die Welt.
Kim Young-oh comes straight from a friend’s wedding. The dark suit he’s wearing must have fit him at one time, but now it hangs off him. For once, Kim Young-oh is smiling. He’s talking about happier times, about the day he met the mother of his daughter.
“I was working in a women’s clothes store. She came in and tried on a jacket,” says Kim. “I offered to give her one if she’d go have a drink with me.” In their wedding photo, taken less than a year later, his bride is already pregnant, eight months along. “We tried to hide it beneath the dress,” Kim says, almost laughing. Yu-min’s birth was tough and lasted nearly a whole day. It was Jan. 14, 1997.
Eighteen years later, Yu-min is buried in a grave not far from her school. The majority of the 476 passengers on a ferry heading from Seoul, South Korea, to the holiday island of Jeju were from Danwon High School, in Ansan. What happened on April 16, 2014, has never been fully explained. What is certain is that 304 people died.
Today, there are a few things Kim knows. That the captain of the MV Sewol was one of the first to escape. That he, and some of his crew, who were said to be drinking the morning of the accident, were sentenced to 36 years in jail. That nine people are still missing. That officials say it’s impossible to salvage the ship.
At first, Kim took vacation time to protest, then quit his job. Now, he lives on donations from charities and passers-by.
There are so many unanswered questions. Questions that haunt Kim. How could the ship still leave port that day after failing to meet all its safety requirements? Why were the rescue efforts so slow? Why were most survivors rescued by fishing boats that happened to be passing rather than South Korea’s emergency response force? Where was the president at the time of the accident? Why hasn’t the commission meant to answer these questions started work yet?
Kim has committed himself to finding the truth. In the process, he has become something of a spokesman for hundreds of bereaved parents.
Never a political person, Kim switched off the radio whenever the news came on and worked an extra shift at the metal factory on election day. But since May 2014, he has been demonstrating daily against the politicians, demanding answers. He wants a truth commission to evaluate the government’s work. At first, he took vacation time to protest, then quit his job. Now, he lives on donations from charities and passers-by. Recently, he was marched off like a criminal by the police. “The government doesn’t want to hear the truth,” he says.
His protest wasn’t getting anywhere, so on July 13, 2014, Kim went on a hunger strike. That’s when public opinion started to turn. Strangers came by to eat their lunch in front of him. The press reported on his private life, his divorce from Yu-min’s mother, how he quit school at age 16. Some insisted he must be eating in secret.
Pope Francis came to Seoul on Aug. 18, 2014. An emaciated Kim Young-oh put on a blue-and-white shirt for the occasion. The pope and Kim met, and Kim told him that he wanted to pray for a law that would bring them the truth. He placed his forehead in the pope’s hands. Kim’s hunger strike lasted more than a month. He was hospitalized, and eventually started eating again — because his daughter Yu-na begged him to.
The anniversary of the disaster has come and gone. “I wish it wasn’t so long ago,” Kim says, “because it reminds me of how little we’ve achieved.”
A partial success came six months later. A truth commission for the disaster was indeed set up. However, its director, Lee Suk-tae, made clear at a press conference that the commission would not have free rein and would be ignored by the government. The so-called Sewol law — it regulates maximum capacities and safety standards for ships — was adopted, although critics have branded it too weak. The government finally offered the victims’ families $400,000 in compensation. Many parents rejected it and shaved their heads in protest.
On the one hand, the government is attempting to prevent any future accidents with nationwide disaster training and school swimming classes. On the other hand, the Sewol disaster has been followed by yet more fatal safety failures. Sixteen people died at a pop concert in October 2014 when a metal grid collapsed beneath them, causing them to plunge 10 meters. A newly opened shopping mall in eastern Seoul was forced to close in December after a glass door fell on visitors. A construction worker was killed in an accident shortly beforehand. Seven people have died during rescue efforts in wake of the Sewol disaster. Kim says he’s fighting for all the victims of safety failures.
On the year anniversary of his daughter’s death, Kim Young-oh took a boat trip to the place where the ship sank and spent time at the school. And then he returned to sitting in Seoul’s main square, where he sleeps every night. His dreams about Yu-min have become more frequent, he says. The anniversary of the disaster has come and gone. “I wish it wasn’t so long ago,” he says, “because it reminds me of how little we’ve achieved.”
Kim’s cellphone rings once a day, every day, at 4:16 p.m. He produces a photo of Yu-min when she was 16, looks at it with a smile and turns off the alarm. “Lots of the Sewol victims’ parents have set the same alarm,” he says. It refers to the day of the disaster — April 16. “I’ll never turn it off for as long as I live,” says Kim. It’s all he has.