On April 16th 2014, the Sewol ferry disaster took place off the coast of South Korea, leaving over 300 people dead; most of whom were high school students on a school trip. In the aftermath of the Sewol’s sinking, lingering questions surrounding the disaster caused massive public outrage amid reports of mishandled rescue efforts while president Park Geun-hye was inexplicably ‘missing’ for a staggering seven hours during the disaster.

The absence spawned accusations of impropriety based on already existing suspicions about a South Korean cult which had close ties to Park. The Sewol disaster formed part of the public impetus for unprecedented protests and the unravelling of a major corruption scandal in South Korea that ultimately proved Park’s undoing.

The Sewol sinking was fraught with negligence and improper responses from its crew from the moment the ferry began to experience issues. Videos recovered from students during the disaster portray instructions played over the Ferry PA system telling students to stay in their cabins as the ship capsized. Most of the children obeyed this instruction.

Public outrage grew after survivors reported that the coast guard did very little to intervene. Passengers who inflated their life vests inside the compartments were prevented from escaping as water began to rise. Divers recovering remains from the Sewol were forced to cut the vests away before victims could be removed from the wreck.

Reuters reported that most of the bodies found in the last two days had broken fingers, presumably from the children frantically trying to climb the walls or floors to escape as the ship went down. Meanwhile, the captain and most of the vessel’s crew walked away from the disaster unharmed. Captain Lee Joon-seok was later sentenced to 36 years in prison for gross negligence. CNN noted that Joon-seok must have known as he got off the Sewol that hundreds of other passengers were still inside following instructions to stay put.

President Park Geun-hye’s whereabouts were unknown during seven crucial hours on the day of the Sewol disaster. A spokesman for South Korea’s presidential Blue House insisted to Reuters that she had been receiving reports about the Sewol incident all throughout the day and gave instructions either by phone or written reports, but the mysterious gap in the record was officially investigated the South Korean Parliament. The President’s explanation was dismissed by the court as insufficient. Despite numerous parliamentary hearings, South Korean authorities have been unable to determine Park Geun-hye’s whereabouts on the day of the tragedy.

Park’s activity during the mysterious seven missing hours continued to be the cause for public speculation in South Korea. Theories explaining her absence included speculation about strange medical and aesthetic procedures, all of which Park denied. Reuters confirmed that Park had previously received injections from a Dr. Kim Sangman which were “derived from human placenta,” although Park denied that she undergoes such treatments. Dr. Sangman had previously practiced at Chaum clinic, which also practices Wastu, a bizarre style of therapy developed by a New Age commune from Harbin Hot Springs, California. Business Insider also reported that another Chaum doctor had apparently been fabricating records to show them as written for Park’s friend and advisor, Choi Soon-sil, who has been jailed along with Park for their roles in the 2016 corruption scandal that rocked South Korea’s government and led to Park’s arrest.

One of Park’s nurses, Cho Yeo-ok, was sent on what was called an “unusual trip” to an American military base in Texas. The nurse was reported to have been present on the day of the disaster, and would have been qualified to testify about any medical treatments Park might have undergone. Cho Yeo-ok’s sudden departure for the U.S. drew public speculation that the South Korean military had sent Cho to the United States to shield her from questions that would prove damaging to Park’s reputation and led to claims from Korean lawmakers that the U.S. military was helping to protect her.

Park’s nurse, Cho Yeo-ok. Image: Yonhap

Remaining confusion as to Park’s whereabouts during the sinking of the Sewol fueled suspicion surrounding the seriously botched rescue efforts. Questions had simmered for years in regards to Park’s close advisor, Choi Soon-sil and her relationship to Park Geun-hye. Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, had developed a close bond with the President after her mother’s death. A Wikileaks diplomatic cable from 2007 referred to rumors among the South Korean public that Tae-min was a “Rasputin” type figure with “complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years.”

The New York Times reported in 2016 that Mr. Choi was the founder of an obscure sect based on Buddhism, Christianity and Chondogyo called the Church of Eternal Life who befriended Ms. Park, 40 years his junior, soon after her mother was assassinated in 1974. Media reports stated that after Choi Tae-Min’s death in 1994, his daughter Choi Soon-sil became a close advisor for Park and that during this time there were rumors (firmly denied by the president) of shamanist rituals being performed in the Blue House. Korean news outlet The Hankyoreh revealed that Soon-sil exercised extreme levels of control over Park, to the extent that she was dictating the president’s own policy.

Despite official denials, there was a clear pattern of official acceptance of shamanism during Park’s presidency. In 2016, South Korean paper Kukmin Ilbo reported that shamanistic ritual sacrifices were performed in the National Assembly Proceeding Hall where South Korea’s legislature convenes.

The ceremony was attended by over 200 people, including politicians, supermodels, doctors and shamanists. It drew the ire of Korean pastors and theological teachers who condemned the National Assembly’s official endorsement of the event. The Korea Times also noted that the public was increasingly interpreting official events and the president’s remarks in religious terms.

After the sinking of the Sewol, South Korean media speculated the incident had been intentional and meant to mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of Choi Tae-min, which fell near the date of the Sewol disaster. Al-Jazeera wrote that Park was: “forced to deny rumours that she was participating in a ritual to mark the anniversary of the death of Choi Tae-min, the founder of a Christian sect to which she had ties.”

The Korea Times also described claims that the accident was related to a sacrificial ritual and that the victims were “offerings.” So controversial were the accusations against Park and Choi Soon-sil, that practitioners of shamanism in South Korea claimed their reputations were being tarnished by the scandal.

Shaman Shin Joong-in performs a ritual in which offerings of food are made to spirits. Photo: AFP.

Adding to questions surrounding the disaster were revelations that the owner of the Sewol was South Korean billionaire Yoo Byung-eun, known colloquially as “the millionaire with no face.” Yoo had co-founded an obscure church, sometimes referred to as a cult, which had connections to a 1987 mass suicide. According to the New York Times: “[Yoo] was arrested after the deaths of 32 members of a splinter group from the Salvationists. They were found dead in the attic of a factory cafeteria in 1987; some of them had been hanged.” When authorities attempted to question Yoo in relation to the sinking of the Sewol, he disappeared, leading authorities on a weeks-long manhunt before his decomposed body was found in an orchard.

Over two years later, corruption allegations emerged regarding President Park and her now-unpopular advisor Choi Soon-sil. Massive protests broke out in 2016, motivated in part by the Sewol disaster.

As Disobedient Media previously reported, the string of scandals resulted in up to 1.5 million South Koreans take to the streets for weeks of protests that ultimately ended Park’s presidency in 2017 and led to her arrest as well as corruption charges for Choi Soon-Sil and the heir to corporate giant Samsung.