(AA) — South Korean authorities answered one of the country’s most anxiously awaited questions Wednesday, by confirming plans to salvage a sunken ferry in an operation that may finally provide some closure for grieving families.
Nine of the Sewol disaster’s 304 victims — most of whom were high school students — have remained unaccounted for since the vessel capsized just over a year ago off South Korea’s southwest coast.
Calls have intensified for the ferry to be recovered, not only to find those still missing but also to provide further clues about the sinking.
Protests following last week’s first anniversary of the tragedy turned violent when thousands of demonstrators found themselves surrounded by even greater numbers of police.
President Park Geun-hye had promised to salvage the Sewol “as soon as possible” before departing for an overseas trip on the same day as the anniversary. Family members have accused the government of leaving them waiting for news since divers were forced to abandon their search in November.
But an announcement finally arrived Wednesday as Public Safety Minister Park In-yong delivered a press conference.
The salvage operation is expected to start in September and last for up to 18 months.
“The primary risk is that the Sewol is a vessel built more than 20 years ago so there is corrosion in its body,” Park said.
He insisted that the main aim will be to minimize the risk of further damage that could cause the loss of any bodies trapped inside.
The government estimates that the cost of the operation will reach 150 billion won (nearly $140 million) — while admitting that the figure could rise further.
Potential problems highlighted by Park include typhoons and the notoriously strong current where the ferry lies wrecked.
The plan is to use cranes to haul up the Sewol, using around 100 divers to make preparations.
Salvage companies from abroad will also be chosen to join local efforts, according to Oceans Minister Yoo Ki-june, who will oversee the operation.
Following the deaths of two search divers last year, Yoo vowed to avoid any more “collateral safety accidents.”
A spokesperson for the victims’ families responded by welcoming the official announcement.
“We also call on the government to carry [the recovery plans] out transparently in close communication with the families,” Yoo Kyung-keun was quoted as saying by local news agency Yonhap.
The country’s largest opposition party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, also reacted via spokesperson Seo Young-kyo — who described the government’s decision as a “belated relief.”