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Battle to recognize fishermen’s sacrifice continues

On April 2 of last year, a week after the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, a small fishing boat collided with a Cambodian cargo ship and sank in the West Sea.

Nine fishermen, who were aboard the ill-fated private trawler “Geumyang 98” ― mobilized by the government to assist in the search for the missing sailors of the sunken warship ― never returned to their families.

Only two bodies were retrieved from the sea, while seven others remain missing as of today.

As the nation continues to mourn the loss of dozens of Cheonan sailors, families of the nine fishermen are continuing a lonely battle to have their sacrifices properly recognized by the government and the public. Their main demand is to have the men officially designated as martyrs.

“With the fishermen now gone from the memories of the government, people and media, we are in a lonely fight to have them rightfully recognized as martyrs,” Lee Won-sang, sibling of one of the missing fishermen and head of an ad-hoc committee formed by the bereaved families, said.

“We are not hoping for something very big either,” he added. “We just wish to have the men rightfully commemorated and thanked by setting up a small foundation to fulfill such purposes.”

In June, the Ministry of Health and Welfare concluded not to designate the nine men as national heroes, citing the lack of circumstantial qualifications for them to benefit from the government support program.

In order for the men to be designated as martyrs, their lives must have been sacrificed while in “direct rescue activities.” The Geumyang 98 sank while it was heading back to port after the rescue operation and thereby does not meet the requirements, the ministry said.

Through national fundraising, about 125 to 250 million won was delivered to each fisherman. State-designated martyrs receive 197 million won and other medical and educational benefits for the families.

A revision to broaden the scope of these requirements has been submitted to the parliament, which the bereaved families hope will be approved during the April National Assembly session. But with such little interest in the missing fishermen, the bill could go unrecognized among other pending bills and thus rejected, they fear.

“Our men have been mistreated compared to the sailors,” said Kim Jae-hong, brother of Kim Jae-hoo, the late captain of the Geumyang 98. “The crew voluntarily joined the search when they didn’t even have any obligation as soldiers or public servants. Shouldn’t this count for more?”

The government’s previous promise to set up a memorial tower in Incheon to pay respect to the missing fishermen is also serving as another disappointment for the family members.

According to them, the government has not officially made any attempt to pay for the expenses or notified further on how the construction will proceed.

Regardless, family members and friends of the missing fishermen plan to hold a memorial service at the site where the tower is being built to mark one year of the sinking of Geumyang on April 2.

By Shin Hae-in (