President Park Geun-hye on Monday said her administration will “actively review” salvaging the Sewol ferry that sank last year, leaving over 300 people dead or missing.
It is the first time the South Korean leader has commented about recovering the ill-fated ship, but a myriad of issues, including technical difficulties, significant costs and doubt remain about the daunting task of recovering the vessel.
Park’s statement comes with the condition that the government will push ahead with the operation only if it is technically possible.
The ferry accident took place on April 16. Nine people are still missing, possibly located inside the sunken ferry.
A citizen bows in respect to the 304 lost lives from the Sewol ferry sinking in April last year in front of the Gwangju High Court on Tuesday. A final trial on appeal was due at the court on the captain and crew of the ship, who have been convicted of negligence. (Yonhap)
The primary concern with raising the ferry is how difficult it will be to bring the 6,825 ton ship to the surface. While the government successfully salvaged the sunken warship Cheonan in 2010, the Sewol is at least five times heavier. Combined with the weight of the water and mud cargo, the ship is estimated to weigh as much as 15,000 tons.
“Salvaging a vessel the size of the Sewol is unprecedented. The situation is unfavorable given that nothing is certain,” said an official from the Maritime Ministry.
What complicates the case even more is that officials are being pressured to recover the ship as a whole.
Families of the accident’s victims have emphasized that the ship must not be broken up during the salvage operation, a daunting task given that the Sewol is completely submerged 44 meters under water. The Cheonan, on the other hand, was submerged just 25 meters under water.
Salvaging the Sewol is likely to include punching holes in the ship and connecting some 100 chains to it, a job that involves an underwater operation by divers. Strong currents in the area makes such an operation risky, as demonstrated by the death of two civilian divers during an underwater rescue operation that took place after the sinking.
Local experts are split on whether it is necessary to consult foreign experts about the ferry’s recovery. Lee Cheong-gwan ― who participated in the salvage operation of the Cheonan ― claimed it was possible for Korean experts to recover the ship with their own technology, but others point out that salvage operations of a ship the Sewol’s size under such unfavorable conditions has never taken place before.
Even if the salvage operation is possible, there is also the issue of cost. Maritime Minister Yoo Ki-june recently estimated the operation to cost from 90 billion won ($82.7 million) to 200 billion won.
The insurance policy for Sewol’s operator Chonghaejin Marine covers about 20 billion won and the majority of the company’s assets are its ships, meaning the government would have to shoulder most of the cost.
While a recent survey by the local daily Hankuk Ilbo showed that 77.2 percent of Koreans favor salvaging the ship, many people such as Rep. Kim Jin-tae from the ruling Saenuri Party have voiced opposition about it, citing the cost, technical difficulties and possibly endangering the lives of divers in the process.
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org)