By Cynthia Kim, Rose Kim, and Sam Kim
April 28 (Bloomberg) — Prosecutors investigating South Korea’s worst maritime disaster in four decades said the captain of the ‘Sewol’ ferry and two crew members are facing a life sentence for abandoning passengers as the vessel sank.
Homicide through abandonment carries a prison term of three years or more and a life sentence is possible under Korean law. Captain Lee Joon Seok, 68, who wasn’t on the bridge at the time of the incident, the third mate named Park, who was steering the vessel, and a helmsman Cho, who was with Park, face the abandonment charge and others including homicide through occupational negligence, prosecutor Lee Bong Chang said by phone today in Mokpo.
All 15 crew members involved in navigating the Sewol survived the sinking and all have been arrested. Coast guard footage showed the captain boarding a rescue boat dressed in shorts and no shoes, with other crew members also boarding not wearing their uniforms. YTN TV identified the crew.
“We couldn’t ask people whether they’re crew or passengers because the situation was too urgent,” Kim Kyung Il, the captain of one of the first coast guard boats to reach the sinking vessel, said in an interview broadcast on YTN. “We didn’t know who was a crew member and who was passenger.”
Growing public anger prompted Prime Minister Chung Hong Won’s resignation yesterday as polls showed support for President Park Geun Hye and the ruling party slipping and as the country’s major newspapers accused the government of mishandling its response to the tragedy. Most of the 302 dead and missing from the ferry sinking were high school students from the same school, adding to the sense of outrage.
“These kids were killed because we adults didn’t do things properly,” 72-year-old Kim Sook Ja said as she sat outside a memorial to the victims of Danwon High School, near Seoul, who were on a field trip to Jeju island when the vessel sank. “I’m so put off and angry about this country. I’m just so sorry and so heartbroken.”
Investigators have said they are probing whether the ferry turned too quickly or abnormally, and whether it was carrying too much cargo, when it listed and sank in an area known for strong currents off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula. Justice Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn today pledged an overhaul of shipping industry regulations.
“We will study any structural problems in the shipping industry and overhaul its legal framework to prevent similar disasters,” Hwang said in a parliament committee today. “Given the public anger and the issue’s seriousness, we will actively apply all laws to strictly punish those involved. The ferry’s crew, operator and regulator face severe punishment over any wrongdoings.”
Ordered to Stay
Survivors have said the crew gave at least two orders between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. for passengers to don life jackets and remain in their existing locations. Captain Lee has said those orders were given because lifeboats hadn’t yet arrived and the currents were too strong to evacuate.
President Park called the actions of the ferry’s crew in abandoning passengers on board “like murder.”
Prosecutors raided Mokpo Coast Guard today to investigate whether it took immediate action after it received a distress call from a student on the ferry that was transferred via emergency services, Kim Jae In, a senior inspector at Korea Coast Guard’s West Regional Headquarters said in his office. The emergency service control center was also raided.
The coast guard is still looking at why only one of the 46 lifeboats on the Sewol was properly deployed and why others didn’t auto-inflate when they hit the water, Kim said.
Three officials at the Korea Shipping Association, which oversees ferry operators, were arrested for destroying evidence before a prosecutors’ raid, Yonhap News reported. The prosecutor handling the case wasn’t immediately available to comment when his office was reached by Bloomberg.
Twelve officials from the ferry’s operator Chonghaejin Marine Co. are under investigation, prosecutor Ahn Sang Don told reporters in Mokpo.
“There are too many irregularities and malpractices in parts of society that have been with us for too long, and I hope those are corrected so that accidents like this will not happen again,” Prime Minister Chung said in a televised briefing yesterday to announce his resignation. “I apologize to the nation for the government’s failure to prevent the ferry disaster and to handle the accident properly.”
Chung’s resignation should mark the “beginning of holding those involved accountable,” the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial today. “Given the gravity of the situation and the people’s anger, it will not be enough even if every member of the cabinet steps down.”
Public anger has begun to erode President Park’s approval rating, which slipped to 57 percent as of April 25, down from 71 percent on April 18, the day after she visited victims’ relatives near the site of the sinking, according to Seoul-based polling company Realmeter. Support for Park’s ruling New Frontier or Saenuri Party has also fallen, by 4.7 percentage points to 48.7 percent. The opposition’s approval rate rose to 28.1 percent from 26.9 percent.
South Korea holds metropolitan, provincial and municipal elections in June, including the capital Seoul.
University student Park Ji Hun said he’s unlikely to vote after becoming disillusioned with both the government and politicians in general after the incident.
“We grown-ups are all in one way or another responsible for those students’ deaths,” Park, 23, said while standing in line for the memorial altar in Ansan, close to Danwon High School. “Those kids trusted us grown-ups and we failed them. We messed up big time.”
More than two-thirds of the passengers on the Sewol belonged to a group of 339 students and teachers from Danwon. Across the country, spring festivals and concerts have been canceled in a period of national mourning over the incident, Korea’s worst maritime disaster since the ‘Namyoung’ ferry sank in 1970, killing 323.
Almost 150,000 people have visited the memorial altar to offer their condolences, the Gyeonggi provincial government said yesterday. Mourners were still lining up today to receive a yellow ribbon that reads “one little movement will bring big miracles” from volunteers. Each visitor puts a white chrysanthemum in front of rows of photographs of the deceased.
“Everyone in the country has been shocked and saddened by the ferry disaster,” Prime Minister Chung said yesterday. “It’s been more than 10 days but there are still missing people.”
Victims’ relatives shouted and threw water bottles at Chung, who will remain in office until the government’s response has concluded, as he visited them at a gymnasium in Jindo, near the site of the ferry sinking, hours after the incident on April 16.
Park selected Chung, a former prosecutor, as prime minister in February 2013 after her first choice Kim Yong Jun withdrew his candidacy over allegations of suspicious real estate dealings involving his family. In South Korea, the post is mainly representative, though Park pledged to bolster the role at the time of Chung’s nomination.
There are also signs of tension at the scene of the ferry sinking, where divers have been hampered by strong currents and visibility of as little as 20 centimeters (8 inches) as they search the submerged 6,825-ton, five-deck vessel.
The official death toll of 189 will probably rise to 302, as no survivors have been found since 174 of the 476 passengers and crew were rescued on the day of the sinking. Seven divers are ill, mainly from decompression sickness, coast guard official Ko Myung Suk said in a televised briefing.
The briefing was interrupted by a volunteer diver protesting Ko’s comments from April 24 that the government would begin limiting access to volunteers because they were hampering rescue efforts. Most couldn’t handle strong currents and low visibility and some left after only taking photos, Ko said at the time.
At the Jindo gymnasium, the number of victims’ relatives has dwindled since the days following the tragedy. Still, more than 100 remain, many lying or sitting on the floor with blankets while volunteers offer food and drinks outside. The walls along the entrance are covered with messages of hope for the return of the missing students.
“I wish I had you in my arms more often,” said one. “I’m sorry, and thank you. I miss you, my son.”
–With assistance from Kyungji Cho, Shinhye Kang, Seonjin Cha and Eunkyung Seo in Seoul.
Copyright 2014 Bloomberg.