A memorial for the victims of the Sewol disaster
On April 22, the South Korean government announced that it had approved plans to salvage the wreckage of the Sewol, a South Korean ferry that capsized in April of 2014 claiming the lives of 304 of its 476 passengers. The operation is expected to cost over $91m, taking as long as 18 months to complete – yet its implementation should not come as a surprise. For the government, the move appears easy when compared to the task of remedying the institutional faults responsible for the tragedy in the first place.
President Park Geun-hye officially announced support for the plan amidst violence between demonstrators and police on the tragedy’s anniversary. On April 18, protests were organized by the families of victims and their supporters. Bereaved relatives had long demanded that the government salvage Sewol in the hopes of discovering missing bodies and definitive clues as to the causes of the accident. Violence began as mourners were obstructed by police vehicles and personnel. A dozen individuals were hospitalized following protesters’ attempts to topple barricades and police usage of pepper spray and water hoses to disperse the crowds in response. One year since the tragedy, it appears as though little progress has been made on this issue.
Sewol capsized off the southwest coast of South Korea on April 16, 2014. In the following days, the armed forces of South Korea along with private contractors were deployed to aid in rescue attempts, but to no avail. As of July 22, the casualties are listed as 294 dead and 10 missing. The Washington Post called it a “Katrina-like reckoning” for South Korea, and the aftermath for many survivors was no less tragic.
Several workers were killed in rescue-related operations. The vice principal of Danwon high school committed suicide, as nearly 250 of his pupils perished aboard the vessel. The former chairman of Chonghaejin Marine Co., the company which operated the ferry, ignored a court summons and went into hiding. While the District Court initiated a man hunt, a body believed to be the chairman was found in a field in July of 2014.
These personal tragedies were followed by a fierce political firestorm. National criticism targeted lax regulations and an ineffective rescue response. President Park Geun-hye, whose approval ratings fell from over 70% to less than 50% following the incident, accepted responsibility for the government’s failings, dismantling the Coast Guard in the hopes of reforming disaster response from the ground up. Prime Minister Jung Hong-won resigned from his post, stating that the government accepts responsibility for the incident.
Subsequent investigations discovered disconcerting causes for the tragedy. Sewol was found to have been illegally modified, licensed on falsified documents, and carrying cargo far beyond its capacity. An overly sharp turn capsized the vessel, and worse still, a staggering number of deaths stemmed largely from the negligence of the crew.
It took the vessel two and a half hours to sink. In that time, announcements in defiance of evacuation protocol made by the ship’s communications officer told passengers to “stay put,” alleging that it was dangerous to move. Many members of the crew evacuated soon after the ship began capsizing, including the ship’s captain. 150-160 passengers and crew managed to jump overboard once rescue vessels were in sight. The captain and chief members of the crew were the first ones to be rescued approximately an hour after the vessel capsized.
Shortly after the incident, most members of the surviving crew were arrested on suspicion of negligence and manslaughter. South Korean law explicitly requires that captains remain on their ships during disaster. At a trial in May, lead prosecutors argued for the death penalty for lead crew members whose “negligence was tantamount to murder.”
Ultimately, the Captain and Chief Engineer were indicted on charges of homicide through gross negligence, and sentenced to 36 and 30 years in prison respectively. The other crew members faced lesser charges related to abandonment and safety offence with sentences ranging from five to 20 years. Company officials of the Chonghaejin Marine Co. were also arrested and taken into custody. Relatives of the victims, however, were unsatisfied with the verdict. Yet one should ask exactly what the government could do to compensate for the deaths of their loved ones. Efforts must be turned towards future efforts in disaster prevention and relief, rather than on additional punishments for past offences.
It makes one wonder how such tragedy could happen in a world like ours, a world with smartphones and electric cars. Of the lives lost, many were able to send messages to their loved ones, haunting final words via instant message. Many point to a Korean ethos at the heart of this tragedy: a notion of “quickly, quickly.” Quickly, but at what cost? As Sewol is raised, politicians are still charged with corruption, and business executives remain indicted for financial crime.
Preventative legislation is well-crafted, but enforcement and implementation remain severely undercut in the name of “efficiency.” Media reports indicate that Chonghaejin Marine Co. spent approximately $58,000 for political lobbying, with only $490 towards safety training. As one writer opined in a Korean daily, “our nation has run headlong toward the goal of becoming wealthy for half a century. But we turned a blind eye to the goal of being a civilized and safe society.” One can only echo this sentiment in solidarity with those mourning in Seoul. A year since the incident, there is still a need for that resounding echo.
Image Attribution: “Memorial for the Victims of the Sinking of the MV Sewol” by User:Piotrus, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0