SEOUL – When the Sewol ferry sank off the coast of South Korea on April 16, 17-year-old Yoo-min Kim was aboard as part of a school-sponsored field trip. She hadn’t called her father because she didn’t want him to worry about the cost.
Thus it was only later that Young-oh Kim, a 47-year-old assembly line worker at a Hyundai plant, learned his daughter was among almost 300 students who died in the shipwreck, which has been attributed to a sudden sharp turn. The disaster sparked national outrage here, with more than 4 million signatures collected to demand an independent inquiry.
Kim is now hoping that Pope Francis can succeed where he and other family members of the victims so far have not: shaming the Korean government into action.
Evidence gathered during the days following the accident suggests that many of the 304 deaths could have been avoided had the local coast guard, marines, and rescue team acted promptly.
As the bill authorizing an investigation has become mired in political gridlock, families of the victims have been camping out at a Seoul downtown square for the past four months not far from where Pope Francis is scheduled to hold a Mass on Saturday. They’ve found support from local Catholics, with Korea’s bishops asking the Vatican to consider allowing the family members to meet Francis while he was in town.
The pope delivered, greeting family members Friday before a Mass in Daejeon, about 90 miles south of Seoul, and is expected to meet others. The Vatican announced that one family member has asked to be baptized by the pope into the Catholic Church, which Francis agreed to do at the papal embassy in Seoul Saturday morning.
A Vatican official also said on Friday that Francis had asked that 600 family members be invited to his Mass on Saturday, and when Korean security officials said it was impossible, he asked them to try harder.
A spokesman said Thursday that Francis will not engage the debate over “specific solutions and decisions” about the disaster, but instead will “manifest his closeness to the suffering of the people.”
At the end of Friday’s Mass, Francis said that he hopes the tragedy will impel Koreans “to work together in solidarity for the common good.”
Kim, who’s been on a water-and-salt hunger strike for the past 32 days, spoke to the Globe on Thursday. He displayed a well-thumbed collection of 100 sayings from Francis, translated into Korean, about embracing the weak and the marginalized.
What do you want from Pope Francis?
We’re trying to get the government to pass a special law creating a transparent and independent criminal investigation leading to indictments, because we need to know what happened to our children, why they ended up dying this way. So far, no one has told us the truth. The pope is a person of great influence, so we would like his help in getting the world to listen to us, and in persuading President Park Geun-hye to adopt this law.
What do you think of the pope?
I’m not a religious person, but I’ve read a book with a collection of 100 quotes from him. It seems he’s a really caring person, someone who’s in favor of human rights and peace, and of helping the weakest and most marginalized, the ones who hurt the most. That’s why I’m hoping that he will lend his voice to us, because right now we are powerless.
Are you upset that he’s coming to say Mass in the spot where you’re staging your protest?
We welcome his visit. He’s not distracting from us at all. We want him to come and to stand with us, and to apply political pressure to the government to find the truth.
Do you think they’d listen to the pope if he did speak out?
To be honest, not really. Right now they’re very closed, and I don’t believe they’d listen even to the pope. What it will take is a tide of negative world opinion and media coverage, and that’s what the pope can help to create. We need holistic political pressure, from the top and the bottom.
What has it been like losing your daughter in such a tragic way?
It’s very difficult, almost impossible, to express in words. We were very close, and memories of her come back to me all the time. I remember us walking together in the mornings, I remember her coming up from behind once on a vacation to surprise me with a hug. I remember us falling asleep together when she was little. My heart is broken . . . when this first happened all I could do was go to the harbor and look out at where the ship went down. I sat there for three days, and I couldn’t do anything . . . it’s still impossible to believe she’s gone.
Are you still angry?
At first I was extremely angry, especially because there was no effective rescue operation mounted at a time when at least some of the victims could have been saved. That’s part of the reason I decided to launch a hunger strike. Today I’m not angry anymore, but I am calm and determined.
If I can’t clearly find the truth of my daughter’s death, I have no reason to live. I’m willing to die for it. Until our version of the special law is enacted, I will never leave this place.
John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. Inés San Martín is the Globe’s Rome correspondent. Allen may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org and San Martin email@example.com. Sign up to be notified when Crux, a website covering all things Catholic, launches.