November 26, 2014 / 9:29 PM / 3 years ago

Stigma and isolation haunt South Korean families of convicted ferry crew

JINDO, South Korea (Reuters) - Im Young-ae and her husband, a crew member who survived the Sewol ferry disaster, had dreamed of a peaceful retirement by the sea until their lives were upended by the April tragedy.

Im Young-ae, whose husband is one of the convicted crew members of the sunken ferry Sewol, speaks during an interview with Reuters at her home in Jindo November 18, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Their new house is finished and Im has moved in, but she is living in virtual isolation with her adult daughter.

As Im’s husband serves a 5-year jail term for negligence over the ferry’s sinking, she, like the loved ones of other surviving crew, is being treated as a pariah amid outrage in South Korea over the deaths of 304 people, mostly teenagers, on the doomed boat.

Im’s daughter, as well as her son, have quit their jobs in Seoul, unable to bear the anger directed at them.

The surviving crew have been vilified since video footage showed they were among the first to be rescued as teenagers on a school trip waited in their cabins as instructed, drowning when the overloaded vessel sank before help arrived.

In South Korea, a person’s shame or honor is profoundly affected by family association.

“People look at us so wickedly ... I don’t want anyone to recognize me. I avoid people as much as I can,” Im said from her brick cottage on Jindo island, with a deck overlooking the ocean on the southwestern tip of the Korean peninsula.

Jindo is Im’s hometown. It’s also not far from where the ferry capsized.

“Not just one or two but too many kids died ... It hurts me more because my husband is alive. Because he is alive, we feel sorry and thankful,” she said.

Im spoke on condition that her husband not be identified for fear that could ignite more public resentment and hurt an appeal against his conviction. [ID:nL3N0T31VY]

All 15 surviving crew are appealing their convictions in the hope of lighter sentences. Jail terms handed down this month ranged from five years for some crew to 36 years for the Sewol’s captain. [ID:nL3N0T12M0]

The ferry sank while making a turn on a routine voyage to the holiday island of Jeju. The vessel was later found to be defective, with additions made to increase passenger capacity making it top-heavy and unstable.

SHOULD WE APPEAL?

A defense lawyer who represented some of the convicted crew said their families were tormented by remorse.

“One defendant’s wife ... didn’t want to appeal because it might not be the right thing to do for the sake of the victims’ families. But for their own little kids, he wanted to be released a little earlier to be with them,” the lawyer said.

Another legal source involved in the case said there would be little change in defense strategy in the appeals, with the focus on trying to reduce sentences, not overturn convictions, by saying the crew were largely helpless, and were remorseful.

Inside the prison in the city of Gwangju, the crew are in solitary confinement over concern other inmates might try to harm them, the lawyer said.

The lawyer and the legal source asked not to be identified due to the legal proceedings and the controversial nature of the case. Other families declined to talk to Reuters.

STIGMA, DEPRESSION, THOUGHTS OF SUICIDE

Im’s daughter, 31, said she had contemplated suicide but changed her mind after realizing it would hurt her father, who joined the Sewol crew last year after attempts at running small businesses on the Korean mainland didn’t work out.

“Dad is sorry that we have to go through this because of him,” she said, asking that her name not be used.

“In his letters he calls himself ‘ugly dad’, ‘stupid dad’.”

Her brother, who remains in Seoul, no longer sees his friends and keeps to himself after reading hostile online comments about the crew, said Im, 56, adding she herself is suffering depression, insomnia and has lost weight.

But some sympathy exists.

“It shouldn’t be a case of guilt by association. The families of the crew can’t be blamed,” said Kwon Oh-bok, whose brother and nephew are still missing at sea.

Kwon has been on Jindo ever since the disaster, hoping to retrieve their bodies. He is still waiting.

Editing by Jack Kim, Tony Munroe and Dean Yates

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