It was July 14, 2014. Families of victims began a hunger strike in Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, urging the enactment of a special law to find out the truth about the Sewol ferry disaster. At the time, the writer of this article in the Catholic Peace Weekly column, Diagnosis of the Times, was also there, providing legal aid to the victims' families.
During the hunger strike, a government official demanded they leave the area saying that the state is taking action and that such a sit-down is not helpful. It was a very inappropriate remark, different from saying that a license to use the square was necessary. After several meetings and phone calls with the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the police, the memorial for the Sewol ferry began.
He didn't know the hunger strike would continue until the visit of Pope Francis to Korea and the Mass in Seoul. As the hunger strike of the victims' families continued, the question of what to do during the Mass became controversial. He participated in consultations with the members of the Catholic church but even within the church, there were various opinions regarding what was happening, an invisible war was going on.
Rumors circulated that they should end the sit-down strike for the Mass. He complained to a priest who was discussing it and got an answer: "Do you hear only what you hear and see only what you see?" He decided to have faith. The sit-down strike continued and on August 14, during Mass, the Pope approached the victims of the Sewol Ferry and extended his hand.
From the beginning, protests against the families of the Sewol ferry victims continued, denigrating and distorting the claims of the victims' families. On the other hand, the space also served as a place of condolence for the victims of other disasters along with the Sewol Disaster.
The Sewol ferry disaster itself is weighty, but the memorial of the Sewol ferry has already become a space of more historical significance. Due to the new construction of Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, changes to the memorial were inevitable. Although they promised to consult, the Seoul Metropolitan Government tried to erase the memory of the Sewol ferry disaster and the history of the candlelight vigils by unilateral notification of demolition of the memorial. It hurt the families of the Sewol ferry victims and everyone who remembers the space. Victims' families had no choice but to go back to a sit-down. There was a temporary relocation of the memory space, but it is necessary to closely monitor the future behavior of the city of Seoul.
After visiting South Korea in 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on Assemblies and Associations said it was natural for those related to the Sewol ferry disaster to "express their sorrow and anger in response to the devastating damage" as a major element of the rule of law. The memory space is more than a simple memorial space, it's also a space where 'something that cannot happen in a democratic country' took place.
As the UN Special 2020 report points out the process of remembering serious human rights violations not only helps foster a democratic culture in which human rights are respected but also the state's legal obligation to guarantee human rights. The memory of the processes and spaces do not fully capture the meaning of the suffering and damage of the victims so the families should not be subjected to additional harm. Without 'memory' there is no guarantee of the right to truth, justice, relief for victims, or prevention of recurrence. This is an opinion that the government and the Seoul Metropolitan Government must keep in mind.
Presently all the material from the memorial in the Square has been transferred to the Seoul Metropolitan Council building. The families want the memorial to return to the Square after the renovation is completed. They want to set up a memorial to not only remember the Sewol sinking but also testify to the country’s democratic history. The Seoul city government will hold talks with the families but is against erecting a similar memorial space on the renovated Gwanghwamun Square.
We make ongoing history. We have the right and duty to 'remember' it.