World

South Korea ferry disaster sparks anti-government protest

Thousands of South Koreans marched in Seoul for the second straight day Saturday to protest government labour policies and the handling of a ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people a year ago.

Demonstrators in Seoul chant 'salvage the truth'

Relatives of victims of the sunken ferry Sewol and other protesters shout slogans during a rally in Seoul on Saturday. Thousands of South Koreans marched in the city for the second straight day to protest government labour policies and the handling of the ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people a year ago. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)

Thousands of South Koreans marched in Seoul for the second straight day Saturday to protest government labour policies and the handling of a ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people a year ago.

Thousands of demonstrators supporting the relatives of ferry disaster victims gathered for a rally on the same downtown street where protesters violently clashed with police last weekend, leaving dozens injured. Saturday's rally ended peacefully without any reported injuries, said an official from the National Police Agency, who didn't want to be named, citing office rules.

Hundreds of people marched silently from several locations to participate in the evening rally, many of them wearing face masks and yellow scarfs and jackets, the color that has come to symbolize the plight of the families.

Waving candles and illuminated cellphones, the demonstrators chanted "Salvage the truth" and "Park Geun-hye, step down," criticizing the South Korean president for her reluctance to accept a more thorough investigation into the sinking, before voluntarily dispersing.

They were joined by some of the estimated 40,000 unionized workers who had demonstrated in front of the Seoul City Hall hours earlier to denounce government policies that they fear will reduce wages, job security and retirement benefits for state employees, said Park Seong-shik, a spokesman for the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.

South Korean coast guard officers are shown during the rescue operation for the ferry Sewol in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul, South Korea, on April 16, 2014. (Hyung Min-woo/Yonhap/The Associated Press)

A large number of police officers closely watched the demonstrators, many wearing helmets and body armor and holding riot shields. Dozens of police buses were parked nearby, as were some vehicles that appeared to be equipped with water cannons.

South Korean police often use their vehicles to create tight perimeters to block protesters from advancing, as they did last weekend when more than 70 police buses were destroyed.

The ferry disaster continues to haunt the presidency of the increasingly unpopular Park, despite her bowing to relatives' demands to proceed with a difficult and potentially dangerous operation to salvage the 6,800-ton ferry.

Government accused of incompetence

In addition to the salvaging of the ship, relatives have been calling for a new investigation into the government's responsibility for the disaster. They accuse Park of ignoring the alleged incompetence and corruption that they believe contributed to the sinking and high death toll.

A total of 304 people, most of them students from a single high school, died when the ferry Sewol sank off South Korea's southwest coast on April 16, 2014.

Prosecutors blamed negligence by crew members, excessive cargo and improper storage for the sinking, along with slow rescue efforts. Relatives of the victims claim the investigation was insufficient because they believe high-level authorities weren't held accountable.

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