03.11.2017 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Tragedy of Sewol: A New Investigation?


On 13 October 2017, the new presidential administration of the Republic of Korea filed a petition to the prosecutor’s office about the start of a new investigation into the tragedy of the vehicle-passenger ferry Sewol.

The ferry, carrying mainly schoolboys, had sunk in the Yellow Sea on 16 April 2014 on its way from Incheon to Jeju Island. In total, there were 476 passengers and crew members on board. As a result of the disaster, 304 people were killed and 9 people are missing to this day. The rescue operation, which involved more than six thousand people, lasted 210 days until 11 November 2014. The incident ended up leaving a significant impact on the consciousness of the masses and becoming a national tragedy.

As is considered today in the ROK, the large number of casualties was caused by the improper actions of the crew (both before and during the disaster), the discoordination between the rescuers and the ineffective actions of the country’s administration. The latter became one of the primary reasons for the impeachment of the country’s president Park Geun-hye; a huge number of protesters as a result flooded the streets.

People immediately proceeded to blame the former President for the tragedy while also questioning what Mrs. Park was doing for seven hours on the day of the tragedy (rumors range from a love affair and/or shamanic rituals at Choi Song Soil to cosmetic procedures. Other destructive rumors, actively voiced not only by the media but the opposition as well, claimed that the ferry was carrying secret equipment for the construction of an underground submarine station under escort reconnaissance and that the tragedy was caused by a collision with an American nuclear submarine or an attempt to avoid this collision with a sharp maneuver.

The special parliamentary commission actively investigated this issue both before and after the impeachment. Thus, on 14 December 2016, 13 witnesses from the medical staff involved in the treatment of the former Head of State were interviewed, as well as captain Cho Yeok, who was on duty at the presidential administration during the tragedy.

The defense of the ex-President fought hard: on 10 January 2017, Park Geun-hye’s lawyers presented a response to the lawsuit to the Constitutional Court, claiming that on the day of the tragedy, the president was ill and was working in her residence. The report on the ferry’s sinking was received at about 10:00 on the same day by the National Security Office, which then read the reports on the progress of the rescue operations, putting everything in order and visiting the Central Staff for Disasters and Security Response.

Nevertheless, when it came to the impeachment, “criminal inactivity during the sinking of MV Sewol was among the rejected reasons for it. There was simply not enough evidence.

On 22 March 2017, taking advantage of the favorable weather, the South Korean government finally started extracting the ferry. This was carried out by a Chinese consortium led by Shanghai Salvage via hydraulic jacks installed on two barges and cost a total of USD 72 million. On 23 March, Sewol was finally brought to the surface, after which the ferry was loaded into a floating dock and brought to the port of Mokpo in the province of Jeollanam-do.

The costly operation had two main goals. The first was the need to find the remains of nine missing persons and bury them. The second and primary goal was uncovering the true causes of the catastrophe. What was the key factor in the tragedy? A breach of stability because of errors in the modernization of the ship, the worn-out hull caused by improper operation, the shift of cargo due to a sudden change in the speed? Or was there a collision with an underwater object?

Other questions that the investigation could answer was whether there was a secret cargo in the first place. To what extent does the fault lie with the captain and the crew and where did the rescuers go wrong?

It was expected that conclusions about the causes of the tragedy would be made no earlier than six months later. But the time has passed, no sensational things have occurred, and suddenly, there is a new investigation? Alas, it dwells on a different issue. It concerns “the illegal amendment of the president’s directive relating to the tragedy of MVSewol”.

It turns out that the government of Park Geun-hye is suspected to have made corrections to the instructions for the emergency response to such events, thereby exceeding its authority. It turns out that on 27 September 2017, the Center for Emergency Response revealed that amendments have been made to Directive 318, which is the abovementioned instruction. According to it, in cases of such catastrophes, response measure management is entrusted to the presidential adviser on national security. However, at the end of July 2014 (after the tragedy) at the direction of the incumbent adviser Kim Gwang-jin, this responsibility was entrusted to the newly created Ministry of Administration and Security. It is an equivalent of the Ministry of Emergency Situations and was disbanded by the Moon’s administration as a relic of the previous regime. What is astonishing is that the procedure was carried out without consideration by the Office of Legal Expertise and approval by the President.

It also became clear that Park Geun-hye had received the first report on the situation with Sewol half an hour earlier than had been previously stated, more precisely, at 9:30 in the morning. The previous presidential administration reported that the news was submitted at 10:00, and the first instructions of the Head of State on the situation were given within 15 minutes. It was also reported that the relevant amendments were introduced on 23 October 2014.

In the context of such shocking findings, it is worth recalling what the fuss is about: the events are being presented in a way which illustrated that the former President had not given orders on time (after receiving the first written report), and therefore, a fatally long delay occurred in the rescue of the children. In reality, though, there was no delay: the rescue services appeared on the spot relatively on time, among them the Navy, the special forces, fishermen, helicopters and representatives from almost all relevant ministries and departments. However, each side created its own operation headquarters, which led to confusion and shifting responsibility to each other. Also, due to the haste, not everyone arrived properly equipped. But does this mean that only the country’s leader (and not the security adviser, how it appeared to be, according to the amended instructions) can give out directions in such situation, and without them, no one can do anything?

In addition, even in the midst of the rescue operation it was already announced through the central channels that it was safely over and all the children were saved. Apparently, this is exactly what they had reported to the president.

It is no wonder that the conservative and now oppositional party Free Korea calls the concerns of the incumbent presidential administration a ‘show’ and considers them to be a sort of ‘political tampering’. It is no accident that along with the backdrop on the chaotic events, rumors began circulating that a special group investigating the tragedy of MV Sewol was ordered to find evidence pointing to Mrs. Park’s involvement in the disaster at all costs.

What is the investigation looking for now and where? Perhaps, the ex-Secretary of the President on Civil Policy Issues Wu Bun Wu will talk? He was arrested on 9 April 2017, accused of creating obstacles to the prosecutor’s office of Gwangju City during the investigation of sinking of MV Sewol. Or perhaps, Yu Soum Na, extradited from France, the daughter of the late head of the shipping company Cheonghaejin Marine Yoo Byung-eun will share something new? It was on the latter’s instructions that the ferry went out to sea overloaded and poorly managed. And they were silent until now?

Let’s sum it up: the issue of the tragedy continues to be exaggerated, but now the ex-President is trying to focus not so much on criminal inaction as on the interference into the search and rescue procedure. According to the author, this is due to a number of circumstances. First, it turned out that the president was provided with incorrect or inaccurate information, which is why Park Geun-hye could, indeed, continue her own business calmly without knowing the scale of the tragedy or not wanting to interfere with the actions of professionals. Secondly, the complex of activities related to the ferry’s extraction and its ground inspection did not confirm a number of rumors, including the information about a collision with an American submarine or a secret cargo awaiting retrieval. As of now, there are flaws not only in the actions of the captain and the team (especially to those who fled instead of fighting for the survival of the ship), but also in the actions of the rescuers. As a result, the prosecution is faced with a problem, because they have to associate negligence and slowness with Park Geun-hye, and not any other parties involved.

Will the investigators be able to solve this problem and will new, important data on this catastrophe ever come up? We will keep an eye out for this.

Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East of the Russian Academy of Sciences, special for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”