Human Error Compounds Grief Over Korean Ferry Disaster

More than 200 people remain missing after the ferry capsized last week. One family was told their daughter was dead instead of missing. It turns out authorities had confused her for another girl.

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We begin this part of the program by meeting a woman in limbo. She is searching for her sister, who was a passenger on a South Korean ferry. Her story underlines the human cost of a ferry sinking in which more than 60 people died. More than 240 remain missing, people with connections to places around the world, including the United States.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Many families waiting on shore for the return of their loved ones are too anguished and exhausted to speak to reporters. So I was surprised when a clearly distraught young lady named Park Gaeul came over and told me in English that her sister is one of the missing ferry passengers.

PARK GAEUL: We believe that she's in the ship. We are not sure, but - you know what I'm saying?

KUHN: Ms. Park is studying biology in Seattle. Her sister goes to the same high school outside Seoul that many of the ferry passengers come from. They were on a field trip when the ferry capsized. Her father, Park Young-woo, explains that the family saw Korean media reports that their daughter had died in the accident. He went to the hospital to identify his daughter's body, but the body he was shown was not hers.

PARK YOUNG-WOO: (Through translator) I checked the hands of the body, and my daughter's two hands are not exactly the same size. One is a little bigger than the other, so I knew right away that it was not her.

KUHN: The Coast Guard, the hospital and the media all misidentified Mr. Park's daughter. She is, in fact, missing, not confirmed dead. Park says he knows it's just in a mistake, but it just made the family's grief and frustration worse.

PARK YOUNG-WOO: (Through translator) We told the media this was the authority's mistake, but major news media kept reporting this false information. As a father with a daughter, I would like to believe there's still hope, even if the chance is only a 10th of 1 percent.

KUHN: Park Gaeul feels strongly that the government has bungled the response to this disaster, and she's clear about where the political responsibility lies.

PARK GAEUL: (Through translator) Many families here are saying that the Park administration is trying to cover up the deaths here to minimize their effect on regional elections this June. We see only Coast Guards in charge here. Their responsibility is not clear, and we haven't seen any substantial action by higher officials.

KUHN: Over the weekend, scores of families set out on a protest march to President Park Geun-hye's palace in Seoul. Police stopped them before they got very far. President Park has visited the families, who pleaded with her to speed up the search for their children. On the extreme end of the opinion scale, some families complain that government negligence is to blame for their children's deaths.

YEE JAE-YEOL: Usually, that kind of very moralistic response from the ordinary people is very strong, and it must be explained by cultural elements.

KUHN: That's Seoul National University sociologist Yee Jae-yeol. He says that Korean society was traditionally based on Confucianism, and Confucianism was based on a sort of moral deal between the ruler and his subjects. You obey me, the ruler said, and I protect you.

YEE: If there is a famine or a flooding or national disasters, usually the ruler was treated as lacking the moral responsibility.

KUHN: Today, though, South Korea is a modern democracy with First World infrastructure. Professor Yee says the accident is a shocking throwback to two or more decades ago, when many South Korean companies put profits before safety and accidents were more common. Of course, no explanations or analysis can remove the Parks' anguish over their missing family member. Park Gaeul struggles to keep her hopes up about her sister.

PARK GAEUL: I hope that she's surviving in the - in the ship. (Crying)

KUHN: After initially getting the story wrong, South Korean media has since reported that this was all a case of mistaken identity.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

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