07.05.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Seven Years since the Sewol Ferry Disaster

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April 16, 2021 marks seven years the Sewol ferry disaster, which killed more than 300 people, mostly high school students. This makes us look at how work is progressing during the reign of Moon Jae-in to identify and ultimately punish the perpetrators of this tragedy.

From the author’s point of view, the Sewol problem – from the standpoint of establishing justice – consists of two elements. The first one is that it is impossible to point a finger at a specific person and proclaim that “our children drowned precisely because of him”. A significant part of the blame is borne by company management (concurrently an odious Protestant sect), which released the ferry when it was overloaded and had unsecured cargo that – following a sharp turn – fell off, thereby forced the ship to quickly tilt and then capsize. However, the director of the shipping company committed suicide under strange circumstances, and it is impossible to turn him into a focal point of mass hatred.

The captain of the ferry, who was unable to coordinate the actions taken by its crew, fell into a panic – and was one of the first to escape from the sinking ship. Along with that, he sent out a distress signal – but not to the nearest rescue station, but rather to the ferry’s destination, which caused precious time to be lost – and then rescue vessels appeared at the scene of the tragedy too late, with insufficient capabilities to organize a full-fledged rescue operation. Actually, he is the only one who was given a long sentence, and for murder, not negligence (incidentally, this was something Park Geun-hye took care of, otherwise the captain would be free today).

It was also tragic that less than an hour passed from the time the ferry capsized until the time the rescue vessels appeared, and because of how the ferry was designed, and the absence of any air pockets, those who did not have time to escape died almost immediately. On top of that, the central authorities received incomplete information, and at first the news was tossed to media outlets that everyone had been saved, and everything was fine.

The second component is connected with the fact that public anger from the very beginning turned out to be directed in the “right” direction. The opposition back then, led by Moon Jae-in, very quickly played the card that “the tragedy occurred as a result of criminal omission, corruption, and incompetence on the part of the central government and the president personally”. This was due to the fact that Jeolla Province, where the tragedy occurred, is a long-standing base for the opposition, and Moon did not really want to “frame” officials from there. However, it was possible to score political points on the blood spilled by children. Still, the day following the tragedy the president arrived there, and a dog and pony show rescue operation was actually organized for her.

This fact, along with rumors that while the children were drowning the president spent seven hours doing God knows what, very strongly channeled popular protest, and during the “candle revolution” the topic of Sewol was one of the main motivators that led people to take to the streets. It is true that there was no evidence of criminal omission, and even during the trial of Park Geun-hye this charge had to be excluded.

In this context, when Moon Jae-in came to power, conducting a final investigation and establishing the truth was an important campaign promise. Moon’s term of office is already coming to an end, but it still seems that we will not find out the truth.

One year ago, on April 16, 2020, the President of the Republic of Korea Moon Jae-in wrote in his website that the current fight against the COVID-19 virus is based on lessons learned following the Sewol ferry disaster. He noted that the tragedy united the country’s population, who mourned the victims together, bearing responsibility for what happened, and clearly realizing how deeply everyone is connected. The President promised to do everything possible to create a memorial to the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster and finally find out the cause of the tragedy. The memorial, incidentally, was never erected.

On July 9, 2020 an appellate court upheld a suspended sentence for former chief of staff Kim Gi-chun, who received one year suspended in August 2019 for falsely writing in a report submitted to the National Assembly that the president had been informed of what had occurred.

Kim and two other officials were accused of changing the time when President Park was informed of the accident from 10:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. But if one were to compare this chronology with the chronicle of the shipwreck, then at 9:30 a.m. the first rescue vessel had just arrived at the disaster site, and this means that, when adjusted for panic and bureaucracy, the president could have received only the most general information – and this did not affect the decision to provide any assistance, since a significant number of those rescue vessels had already gone to the site of the tragedy but were late. At 10:18 a.m. the ferry finally capsized, and then at 10:25 a.m. the president spoke with the Coast Guard, demanding that it save as many people as possible by checking the cabins and engine room. This means that the information about the ferry capsizing had not reached Park by that time. This raises the question of how honestly, and timely, the president was provided with information about the tragedy. Therefore, the verdict against Kim Gi-chun places the blame not so much on the president as on the officials who falsified the reports.

On July 24, 2020, Yoo Hyuk-kee, the second son of the ferry company’s operator, was arrested in the United States at the request of South Korean investigators.

Investigators perceived him as a key figure in the investigation, since he was the de facto heir, and his corrupt activities contributed to creating an unsafe environment on the ship, since money for security equipment was not allocated – or was misappropriated. It would have seemed that an important suspect had been arrested, and one whose testimony could help shed light on the tragedy. However, after the information about his arrest, no news related to this topic has been found by the author, and this means that it was yet again swept under the rug.

On December 30, 2020, the parents of the tragedy’s victims began a sit-down demonstration outside the National Assembly building, demanding that the special commission conducting the investigation prolong its activities, since its mandate had expired on December 10. From their point of view, it is still unknown why the ferry sank, and why there had been no rescue operation: the Coast Guard and other agencies refuse to cooperate, all the more so since the investigation was stalled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This is a rather important catchline concerning the extent to which the information field affects even the parents of that tragedy’s victims. Although the rescue vessels were not absent, but were just late, and the reasons for the loss of the ferry are well-documented, people still believe that no action was taken to rescue them.

Democratic Party leader Lee Nak-yon went to the protesters and announced that all their demands concerning the introduction of amendments to the special law governing social calamities would be taken into account. The investigation period for the special commission will be extended by two years, the special inquiry commission will be empowered to demand data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Supreme Court, despite the fact that it might be potentially classified, and for criminal offenses that the commission exposes the statute of limitations will be repealed.

On December 17, 2020, a court of appeals acquitted three officials. Former chief of staff Lee Byung-kee, former secretary of the president for political affairs Chu Yong-soon, and former minister of oceans and fisheries Kim Yong-suk received suspended sentences in June 2019 ranging from one to two years on charges of obstructing the investigation of an independent group that was formed in 2015 and included experts, officials, lawyers, and civilians; its purpose was to analyze the causes of the disaster. The main charge of obstruction lay in the fact that these officials demanded that their subordinates, who were sent to the inquiry commission, write reports on the work done by the commission, which was interpreted as an order to monitor the group and interfere with its activities. However, a court of appeals deemed that the reporting itself was something typically practiced by civil servants, and therefore no blame existed for any misfeasance.

It is worth noting that this verdict again shatters the version put forth that the Park Geun-hye administration prevented the disclosure of the mystery behind the tragedy, since no evidence was found of any actions that were aimed specifically at hiding information – or creating obstacles to the work done by the group.

Another important verdict was issued by a special investigation group on January 19, 2021. The results of the investigation debunked most of the allegations made by the families of the victims and their supporters. Charges were filed against 11 Coast Guard officials, including former chief of the Coast Guard Kim Seok-kyun, of professional negligence that resulted in the loss of life, and failure to competently manage the rescue operation. In addition, the ad hoc investigation team reviewed the accusation of obstructing interference in the work of the inquiry commission mentioned above, but “the team completed the investigation without additional charges”.

This means that widespread allegations of pressure put on the investigation by the Blue House, or illegal surveillance done on some of the victims’ families, have not been substantiated. Along with that, charges were dropped against the Coast Guard that it had evacuated a teenager found in the water by boat, and not using a helicopter that was occupied by high-ranking officials at the time. It was established that this could not be considered to be a hindrance to the rescue operations that led to the death of the child.

Significantly, the special investigation team was created in November 2019 by the then-attorney general Yoon Seok-youl, and it was believed that this team would definitively clarify all the complex issues and allegations surrounding the unsuccessful rescue operation. However, as you can see, no sensations arose that would confirm Moon’s point of view about the guilt of the central authorities.

Shortly after this verdict, on February 15, 2021, a Seoul court acquitted Kim Seok-kyun and nine other people who held key posts in the Coast Guard at that time.

Delivering the verdict that Kim and the others were not guilty of negligence, Judge Yang Chol-han stated that the investigation had failed to substantiate the charges, and given the paucity of information the defendants had at their disposal, it had been difficult for them to think through the mandate for the rescue operation.

The special investigative group from the prosecutor’s office, however, condemned the court’s decision as “unconvincing”, and said it would file an appeal against it. The families of the victims were also opposed to that, and from the author’s point of view, an outright acquittal instead of a symbolic, short suspended sentence really seems odd.

Nonetheless, on April 16, 2021, Moon Jae-in urged people “to continue trying to ensure that the truth about the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014 is fully divulged”.

The anniversary was marked by events of mourning, and South Korean media outlets assiduously emphasized the pain that the victims’ relatives felt, and their hopes for a fair investigation into the causes of the disaster. At the same time, outright fake news, such as the following passage, appeared in the media: “The sinking of the passenger ship was broadcast live across the country, traumatizing people who felt helpless and angry about the painfully slow rescue operations”.

This is an outright lie, since there was no live broadcast of the ferry wreck due to the absence of reporters at the scene, and the footage taken by the rescuers became known only later; in addition, as the author noted above, the time between the arrival of the first rescue vessel and when the ferry was overturned was less than an hour. Nevertheless, both democrats and conservatives were noticed at the events of mourning, and Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae even specifically emphasized that the Republic of Korea is a different country before and after the Sewol disaster, and April 16 marked the day after which the government made the life and safety of its citizens a top priority.

Moon Jae-in noted that another independent team of lawyers, headed by a special prosecutor, will be formed to establish the truth, “which will provide an opportunity to take one step closer to the truth”. But what have we seen during these years? On the one hand, the people involved in the tragedy have been released, the acquittals in this case are complete, and it is not very clear what weighed more in the court’s decision, given the origin of those acquitted. Yes, they really could do little, but the complete acquittal seems like a very politicized step, and the author imagines what kind of hysteria the opposition would stir up if this decision, with exactly the same wording, had been delivered under Park Geun-hye.

On the other hand, although the accusations against Park Geun-hye are still “not confirmed”, Moon Jae-in is putting together more and more investigative teams to find evidence that the main culprit in the tragedy is the former central government, otherwise it turns out that the main, scary truth about the Sewol tragedy is that the foundation of Moon’s ascent to the presidency rests on the blood of innocent children, since public opinion has been tossed about by fake news.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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