April 16, 2015 / 7:49 AM / 2 years ago

Angry and divided, South Korea mourns on anniversary of ferry disaster

A mourner looks at pictures of victims from the sunken ferry Sewol at the official memorial altar for the victims in Ansan on the occasion of the first anniversary of the ferry disaster that killed more than 300 passengers, April 16, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

ANSAN, South Korea (Reuters) - A day of mourning for the 304 victims of the Sewol ferry sinking was overtaken by acrimony on Thursday, as organizers called off a ceremony planned to mark its one-year anniversary to protest against the South Korean government’s response to the disaster.

The main group representing bereaved families said the government had let them down again by failing to announce by the anniversary a decision to raise the ship in hopes of finding the bodies of nine victims still missing.

The group’s leader also cited President Park Geun-hye’s decision not to attend the memorial service as a reason for calling it off. Instead, Park visited the southwestern port of Jindo, which had served as a makeshift morgue when the ferry sank on April 16 a year ago.

“We want to say how disappointed we are that the government and the president have made it impossible for the families to hold this memorial service,” the group’s leader, Yoo Gyoung-geun, announced outside the hangar-like structure that houses a memorial altar for the Sewol victims.

“They are going to have to take responsibility.”

The year since the ferry sank during a routine voyage from Incheon to Jeju island has been one of both grief and anger toward the government for the families of victims.

Park’s prime minister was booed off by an angry crowd when he tried to visit the memorial altar in Ansan, home of Danwon High School, which lost 250 of its students on a class trip.

Park was heckled in Jindo, where she paid her respects at the dock lined with yellow flags carrying messages for the victims against the backdrop of a windy sea.

She said the government would begin preparing to raise the 6,800-tonne submerged ship, her clearest indication of a plan to recover it. The families and political opponents have accused the government of dragging its feet.

“I earnestly ask that we step beyond the pain of the Sewol, overcome the adversity and trial and go on the road of creating a new country,” Park said.

In Ansan, a long line of mourners waited in the rain as an outdoor stage for the memorial and rows of chairs stood empty.

Some family members of the victims and groups supporting their cause held a gathering in central Seoul late in the day, overseen by a heavy police presence which blocked them when they attempted to disrupt traffic and start marching on streets.

The Sewol set off on April 15 last year from Incheon, west of Seoul, for a routine overnight voyage to Jeju with 476 people on board. It capsized while making a sharp turn off Jindo.

It was later found to have been structurally unsound and overloaded, and many of the children followed instructions to stay in their cabins as the crew scrambled to safety in what was widely criticized as a botched rescue operation.

Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Tony Munroe and Paul Tait

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