By Rose Kim, Cynthia Kim and Heesu Lee
April 29 (Bloomberg) — South Korean President Park Geun Hye apologized over a ferry sinking that left more than three hundred people dead or missing, the nation’s worst maritime disaster in four decades.
“I apologize to the people,” Park said at a cabinet meeting today, according to a pool report issued by the presidential Blue House. Part of the meeting was later broadcast on YTN. “I feel heavy-hearted after a lot of precious lives were lost due to this accident,” she said.
Public anger over the sinking has been growing since footage emerged of crew members, including the captain, abandoning the Sewol ferry ahead of passengers as it sank off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula on April 16. Major newspapers have criticized the government’s handling of the rescue effort, while Prime Minister Chung Hong Won resigned as polls showed support for Park and the ruling party slipping.
All 15 crew members involved in navigating the Sewol have been arrested. 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 a life sentence on charges including homicide through abandonment and homicide through occupational negligence, prosecutors said yesterday.
Homicide through abandonment carries a prison term of three years or more and a life sentence is possible under Korean law.
President Park has called the actions of the ferry’s crew in abandoning passengers on board “like murder.”
Kim Han Shik, the chief executive officer of the ferry’s owner and operator Chonghaejin Marine Co., didn’t answer reporters’ questions as he entered prosecutors’ offices for questioning in Incheon today, physically supported by two aides.
Investigators have established that crew members called the company seven times as the Sewol listed, and are assessing whether the calls contributed to a delay in evacuating the ferry, prosecutor Ahn Sang Don told reporters in Mokpo today, where the main investigation team is based.
Altogether twelve Chonghaejin Marine officials are under investigation, Ahn said yesterday.
Kim was brought in for questioning as a “suspect,” prosecutor Kim Hoe Jong told reporters in Incheon today, without giving further details. He’s being questioned as part of a probe into the finances of Chonghaejin Marine, its related companies and owner Yoo Byung Eun, the prosecutor said. The company’s accounting firm was also raided today, he said.
Privately-held Chonghaejin Marine posted an operating loss of 785.4 million won ($762,000) last year on sales of 32 billion won, according to its 2013 audit filed to the regulator.
Chonhaiji Co., a closely-held maker of vessel parts, owns 39 percent stake in Chonghaejin Marine, the report shows. Chonhaiji is 43 percent-owned by another unlisted company I-One- I Holdings Co., whose biggest shareholders are Yoo Hyuk Gi and Yoo Dae Kyoon, according to the companies’ audit reports.
There is no mention of Yoo Byung Eun in any of the audit reports of Chonghaejin Marine, Chonhaiji or I-One-I Holdings.
“We are looking into all necessary angles in this investigation,” Kim the prosecutor said. Prosecutors are considering summoning Yoo and are in talks with the family’s lawyer over when to question other family members, he said.
Three employees at the Korea Shipping Association, one floor above Chonghaejin’s office in Incheon, are being questioned by prosecutors after they allegedly destroyed documents ahead of a raid, according to an association official who declined to give her name to a Bloomberg News reporter at the office today. The incident at the association, which oversees ferry operators, was earlier reported by Yonhap News.
Prosecutors have said they’re probing whether the ferry turned too quickly or abnormally, and whether it was carrying too much cargo on its journey between Incheon and Jeju island. They’re also looking at whether expansion work on the vessel since it was bought from Japanese ferry operator A-Line in 2012 had contributed to the incident.
“Many of those under investigation have testified that the Sewol had a stability problem,” prosecutor Ahn said today. “We’re investigating how severe it was.”
Both Mokpo Coast Guard and the emergency service control center were raided yesterday to assess whether they took immediate action after receiving a distress call from a student on the ferry, said Kim Jae In, a senior inspector at Korea Coast Guard’s West Regional Headquarters. 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, he said.
Justice Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn yesterday pledged an overhaul of shipping industry regulations.
“I regret the layers of wrongdoings and malpractices from the past that have been left intact,” Park said at today’s cabinet meeting. “I should have made more efforts to fix those evils. I will make sure to fix the problems and create a country where people can trust and live a safe life.”
Park pledged to establish a new department under the prime minister’s office to handle disasters.
The president’s approval rating 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.
“The government was running about in confusion after the accident, making families of the missing passengers more angry,” said an editorial today in the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper, one of the country’s major dailies. “A lack of preparation left each department scrambling — the security ministry, marine ministry, navy and coast guard — at the site of Sewol sinking.”
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.
The official Sewol death toll of 193 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.
Divers have been hampered by low visibility and strong currents as they search the submerged 6,825-ton, five-deck vessel. They’ve searched 38 of the 64 cabins in which passengers may have stayed, coast guard official Ko Myung Suk said in a televised briefing today.
High School Students
Most of the dead and missing were members of a group of 339 students and teachers from Danwon High School in Ansan, near Seoul, traveling to Jeju on a four-day field trip.
Almost 180,000 people have visited a memorial altar in Ansan to offer their condolences, the Gyeonggi provincial government said late yesterday. Mourners 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.
President Park visited the altar earlier today.
“This neighborhood will never be the same again,” said the owner of a snack shop near the school that’s a regular hangout place for students, identifying herself only as Kim. “I just wish they recover the bodies as soon as possible. Finding all the children and returning them to their families is the only way to find a little bit of peace.”
Next door to Kim’s shop, a sign on a small dry cleaners reads “closed until tomorrow.” The owner is the mother of a missing student. She left on April 16 to go to Jindo, near the site of the sinking, thinking her son had been rescued and they’d be coming home the next day.
She’s still there, Kim said.
–With assistance from Shinhye Kang, Seyoon Kim, Eunkyung Seo and Seonjin Cha in Seoul and Sam Kim in Jindo.
Copyright 2014 Bloomberg.