The Itaewon disaster is the deadliest to hit South Korea since the sinking of the ferry Sewol in 2014. Photo: AFP / EyePress/ Korea Coast Guard

On April 16, 2014, off the coast of South Korea a ferry carrying roughly 500 passengers sank. Many of its passengers were high school students, who were on a school trip.

Many students phoned the police asking for a rescue operation. Most passengers could have been rescued if the Coast Guard had quickly responded to the students’ calls. But the Coast Guard neglected its duty.

So did the country’s president, who was missing for seven hours after the accident. Moreover, she let citizens be misinformed by news outlets, which reported that the government and rescuers had saved all passengers.

The fiasco, called the Sewol ferry disaster, killed 304 passengers, mostly high-school students from Ansan, Gyeonggi province. The government of then-president Park Geun-hye was slow to rescue passengers and search for bodies. Her administration didn’t try to re-float the ferry, preferring to avoid probing into the tragedy. Until Park was impeached, the government didn’t announce a specific cause of the sinking.

Six years after the Sewol ferry disaster, bereaved families are still organizing demonstrations, urging the government to harshly punish all people who neglected their duty to save passengers. Many of the family members, however, are subjected to hate speech.

During peaceful demonstrations of bereaved families, some far-right wingers put their feet in their mouths: “You are annoying citizens by talking about the Sewol Ferry disaster, which is just a trivial accident”; “I want to express appreciation to your children for dying six years ago”; “Passengers who boarded the Sewol ferry deserved to die.” Many extremists leave such offensive remarks in front of bereaved families. 

While radicalized people were demonizing bereaved families, South Koreans frowned on one politician’s remark. Ahead of Wednesday’s general election, Cha Myung-jin, a lawmaker from the United Future Party and a candidate of the Bucheon-C District in Gyeonggi province, faced criticism for mocking bereaved families of the ferry disaster.

He claimed that bereaved families and volunteers had sexual relations in a tent while staging sit-in demonstrations in Gwanghwamun, Seoul. “Bereaved families have to do soul-searching for their misbehaviors. But they take advantage of citizens’ sympathy over the tragic death, demonizing the former president for their own sake,” added Cha.

Alas, crass comments related to the ferry disaster are not new. After news outlets reported the sinking, some started to leave malicious comments against victims and their families. Kim Ho-wol, an expert in public relations and professor at a university in Seoul, denounced bereaved families for holding demonstrations around the Blue House, the presidential office. Such behavior of bereaved families, Kim claimed, was barbaric. 

In 2014, bereaved families went on hunger strikes, calling for the government to thoroughly investigate the tragic disaster and reveal why many of their children were not rescued.

Then, members of Ilbe, an online forum for self-proclaimed conservative citizens, staged an “eating protest.” They ate food in front of bereaved families to ridicule them. They often trolled victims on Ilbe’s website. One of its members posted a picture that described victims of the ferry disaster as “fish cakes,” a term that is used by Ilbe members to mock victims.

Even now, those online trolls make hate speech against victims and bereaved families of the Sewol disaster.

No wonder bereaved families are still reeling. Many victims lost their lives as the government and Coast Guard neglected their duties. What bereaved families desperately want is the revelation of what caused the Sewol to sink and why the government and the Coast Guard didn’t rescue passengers. But, frustratingly, self-proclaimed conservatives still demonize bereaved families, saying they are trying to receive money from the government by taking advantage of the tragic deaths.

Hate speech against victims and bereaved families of the tragedy obviously constitute defamation. The Supreme Court sentenced to a year’s imprisonment a man who posted material that sexually harassed victims of the Sewol disaster.

Also, the United Future Party tried to expel Cha Myong-jin for ridiculing bereaved families of the Sewol ferry disaster.

But those measures are not enough to soothe bereaved families. Offensive remarks to victims and their families cause emotional pain to bereaved families, and such behavior is unforgivable.

Da-Sol Goh is a translator in Seoul. She is a graduate of Myongji University in Seoul, where she studied law and English literature. As a translator, she mainly handles foreign articles from anglophone countries dealing with politics and international issues.