South Korea’s parliament is to open an investigation into the ferry disaster that has left 300 people dead or missing, politicians confirmed Sunday, as the government counters criticism of its handling of the tragedy.
A special parliamentary session will open this week and a number of committees will begin work from Monday, the government and opposition said, dedicated to confirming the cause of and responsibility for the sinking of the Sewol.
Park Young-Sun, of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, said the session would focus on “a (parliamentary) investigation, the nomination of a special prosecutor and hearings.”
The ruling Sanuri party’s leader of parliament Lee Wan-Koo told a joint press conference it would “make efforts ... to prevent a recurrence of such a disaster.”
The confirmed death toll stands at 275 with 29 still unaccounted for, more than three weeks after the ship capsized off the country’s southern coast.
Victims’ families have been extremely critical of nearly every aspect of the government’s handling of the disaster, and had demanded a government investigation in addition to the police’s efforts.
They want explanations for perceived delays in the initial rescue effort, and are calling for those they believe responsible to be punished.
The recovery operation remained suspended Sunday due to a looming storm and high tides.
Despite enormous hazards and challenges, including near-zero visibility and strong currents, divers have been under immense pressure to retrieve all the trapped bodies as quickly as possible.
But as days go by, they are retrieving fewer and fewer bodies. Partition walls on the ship have started warping and are at risk of collapsing, complicating their work.
Many relatives believe some children may have survived for hours or even days inside air pockets in the capsized ferry, but died because rescuers took too long to access the submerged vessel.
The Sewol was carrying 476 people when it sank on April 16 after listing sharply to one side and then rolling over.
Of those on board, 325 were children from a high school on an organised trip to the southern resort island of Jeju.
Initial investigations suggest the ferry was carrying up to three times its safe cargo capacity.
The Sewol’s regular captain, who was off duty on the day of the accident, has told prosecutors that the ferry operator -- Chonghaejin Marine Co -- “brushed aside” repeated warnings that the 20-year-old ship had stability issues following a renovation in 2012.
Five Chonghaejin officials, including the company’s head, have been arrested on various charges including manslaughter, negligence and breaches of vessel safety laws.