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South Korea: Still Stonewalling about the Sewol

The sinking of the South Korean Sewol may seem an unfortunate accident. Once the surface is scratched, however, a more complicated picture emerges. (Photo: Kim Hanwool / Flickr)

The sinking of the South Korean Sewol may seem an unfortunate accident. Once the surface is scratched, however, a more complicated picture emerges. (Photo: Kim Hanwool / Flickr)

J.J. Suh | September 22, 2014

The Sewol, a South Korean passenger-cargo ferry that was carrying 476 people—including a group of high school students on a field trip to Jeju Island—capsized on April 16, 2014, and sank to the bottom of the sea off Korea’s southern coast.

The Korean Coast Guard rescued most of the crew, including the captain, and some of the passengers. Before the Coast Guard or the Navy arrived on the scene, fishing boats and commercial vessels saved other passengers who happened to be on the deck or escaped soon after the capsizing. The rest were, unfortunately, trapped inside and sank together with the ferry. 294 were later found dead, and 10 are still “missing” almost 5 months after their disappearance.

The ship’s sinking may seem an unfortunate accident, and the passengers’ deaths its tragic ending. Once the surface is scratched, however, a more complicated picture emerges.

The Sewol sank under the weight of the neoliberal state that diminished its role in safety regulation and oversight. Its passengers drowned to death because the state relegated the rescue operation to a private salvage firm and prioritized its own interests over those of the passengers. But when victims’ families demanded the truth, the strong state reared its menacing head by deploying its force to silence them and mobilizing its resources to hide its responsibility.

The Korean state’s deregulation and dereliction combined to create the perfect storm that sent the Sewol and its passengers to the bottom of the sea. The state’s intimidation has suggested that a cover-up is under way to obscure the state’s responsibility, contrary to President Park Geun-Hye’s public promise to get to the bottom of the accident.

The Weight of the Diminishing State

The Korean Coast Guard concluded on April 17 that an “unreasonably sudden turn” to starboard, made between 8:48 and 8:49 a.m., was the cause of the boat’s capsizing. The ship’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) data, which kept the ship’s trajectory until its sinking, seems to confirm the sudden turn.

But this raises another question: Why did the Sewol capsize when it changed course?

Because of overcrowding and overloading. Investigations revealed that the ship had been modified to accommodate more passengers than would be safe. Added to the overcrowding of passengers was the overloading of cargo. The ship’s operators loaded twice as much as regulations allowed and apparently did not secure it as per safety guidelines. On top of this, the crew removed water from the ballast so that the ship would float above the safety line. By adding a weight to the top and removing a weight from the bottom, the crew managed to create a perfect condition for capsizing. When the ferry made a quick turn, the weight of the passengers and cargo tipped the ship, and there was not enough weight in the bottom to restore the ship’s balance.

The Sewol, originally built and operated in Japan for almost 18 years before it was sold to Chonghaejin Marine Co., Ltd., had in fact been modified to carry more passengers and cargo than would be safe. After Chonghaejin added two floors of passenger space and expanded the Sewol’s cargo space, inspectors from the Korean Register of Shipping (KRS) inspected and approved the modifications. Just two months before the accident, the Sewol passed the KRS’s inspection with over 200 safety features receiving a “satisfactory” rating.

Although the Sewol’s modifications undermined the ship’s stability, and thus endangered passengers’ safety, it was able to pass the inspection thanks to shady collusion between the shipper and inspectors. The government relegated the responsibility to inspect and register ships to the KRS, a private entity, and yet did not adequately oversee its operation, as prosecutors discovered after the accident. Government regulators, responsible for the oversight, in fact frequently find employment at the KRS after their retirement.

Chonghaejin took advantage of another loophole in the government’s safety regulation to routinely overload the Sewol. The Korea Shipping Association, an industry organization that represents the interests of about 2,000 members engaged in the coastal shipping business,monitors and inspects the shippers’ safety practices. In an unadulterated case of self-regulation, its headquarters is responsible for “safety guidance” and “implementation of safety measures,” while its branch offices are tasked to offer “guidance for passenger ferry’s safe operation” and inspect the number of passengers and the amount of cargo aboard a ship. The Marine Transportation Law deputizes vessel safety operators to guide and oversee the shipping businesses’ safety practices, but the safety operators are employed by the industry organization even if the government subsidizes their expenses. Passenger safety is thus trusted with the shipping business, whose priorities probably lie elsewhere.

The collusion between the state and the Sewol’s owner risked not only the passengers’ safety but also the crew’s. Most of the Sewol’s crew members were temporary contract workers, a common practice among Korea’s domestic maritime transporters. Lee Junsok, for example—the Sewol’s captain—was a 69-year-old temporary hire with a monthly salary of $2,700. Just like the captain, more than half the crew were temporary workers with contracts of six months to a year, and were denied not just fringe benefits but also safety trainings. As if hiring temporary workers was not enough, Chongaejin also minimized its spending on crew training. It allocated a paltry $540 for the crew’s safety education in 2013, whereas it spent $10,000 on “entertainment” and $230,000 on PR, clearly showing its priorities.

The Sewol sank under the weight of the collusion between the neoliberal state that sheds its responsibility to safeguard people’s lives to private entities that trade customers’ safety for profits. The accident serves as a vivid reminder of the tragic consequences of such collusion.

Rescue Failures by the Disappearing State

One of the greatest mysteries surrounding the Sewol incident is that neither the crew nor the government, including the Coast Guard and the Navy, made serious efforts to rescue the passengers from the sinking ferry.

A Coast Guard patrol boat pulled up to the control room of the Sewol, allowing most of the crew—including the captain—to jump to safety. Most of the surviving passengers were saved because they jumped off the ship before it submerged and were pulled out of water by fishing boats that happened to be nearby. The rest were left to their own devices.

The next several hours, the “golden time” in which the passengers could have been saved, was characterized by the absence of active rescue operations. The Navy’s Ship Salvage Unit (SSU) and Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) as well as the Coast Guard’s special units were dispatched, but arrived late and stopped short of active rescue operations.

This failure was compounded by deadly instructions to the passengers from the crew. They repeatedly broadcast an instruction to the passengers to stay put and not get out of the sinking ship, contrary to common sense. In another illogical instruction, they told the passengers to wear life jackets and stay in their cabin. The instruction proved deadly when the ship capsized and passengers wearing a personal flotation device could not swim underwater to escape from their cabins. A majority of the passengers, high school students, listened and followed the crew’s direction at their peril.

The crew’s failure was repeated by the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard dispatched Patrol Boat 123 to the Sewol, and even though some members of the Coast Guard went aboard the Sewol before it sank, they not only made no effort to rescue the remaining passengers, but they even failed to tell them to abandon the ship. They limited themselves to rescuing only the Sewol’s crew. The captain of the patrol boat testified in court on August 13 that he “panicked so much that he forgot” to instruct his crew to move into the Sewol’s cabins, adding that he was “so busy that he could not tell the passengers to evacuate the ship.”

Coast Guard Commissioner Kim Sok-Kyun did not do much better. He instructed the patrol boat to send its crew to the Sewol and “calm the passengers to prevent them from panicking.” It is clear that no order was issued from the top of the Coast Guard hierarchy to rescue the passengers before the ship sank. Video footage of the Sewol during the golden time shows Coast Guard boats circling around the slowly submerging ferry, effectively keeping away the fishing boats that had come to help save the passengers.

It was not just the fishing boats that were kept away. The Navy could not enter the scene of the accident to participate in the rescue operation for the first two days. Instead, Undine Marine Industries, an ocean engineering firm that specialized in offshore construction and marine salvage but had no record of professional passenger rescue, emerged as the central rescue operator. The day after the accident, Chonghaejin contracted Undine at the recommendation of the Coast Guard, sidelining rescuers from both the Coast Guard and the Navy. Undine’s divers seemed more interested in salvaging the ship’s body than pulling out the passengers, as its divers in fact saved no one. Even when all the passengers remaining in the ship were presumed dead, the company delayed retrieving the bodies of the dead passengers for as long as 20 hours.

The state,whose fundamental mission is to protect people’s lives and provide for their safety,failed throughout the crisis. Not only did it fail to establish an effective control tower that would mobilize national resources necessary for rescue operations, but it instead added to the chaos of the accident by creating obstacles to the rescue and spreading faulty or false information.

Various units of the government created a total of 10 headquarters in response to the Sewol’s sinking, creating confusion as to the line of command and producing problems in communication among government units. The Central Disaster Management Headquarters made what proved a fatal mistake by announcing that 368 passengers were rescued at 1:19p.m., four hours after the ferry’s sinking, when in fact over 300 of them were missing. It took several hours to correct the fateful misinformation and a full day for all the involved government units to establish the Pan-Government Accident Response Headquarters that unified the rescue operations and communication. By then the “golden time” was over, and the remaining passengers were presumably dead.

When the parliamentary special committee called on Chief of Staff Kim Ki-Choon, who is commonly viewed as the real power in the presidential office, to testify on the Sewol, he revealed that President Park had had no face-to-face meetings about the crisis until she showed up in the Central Disaster Management Headquarters around 5 p.m. Her appearance there after seven hours of missing in action was nationally televised. So was her ignorant question: “if the passengers are wearing a life vest, why is it so hard to find them?” Apparently she was unaware that they were trapped inside the overturned and submerged ship and thus could not be seen in the open sea.

The president’s daily log, later released by Representative Cho Won-Jin to quell questions about her whereabouts, only confirmed her absence, for it failed to list a single face-to-face meeting. What did she do for the seven hours? Where was she?

Wherever President Park may have been on April 16th, it is more than clear that the state, from the top to the bottom, was absent from rescue operations during the golden hours. What looked like a strong national security state failed to protect and save people’s lives from the danger it had created with deregulation and privatization.

The Families Demand Truth, and the State Evades

The Sewol tragedy resulted from the collusion of Korea’s sea mafia, neoliberal deregulations gone wild, and a government absent from the rescue operation.

Many details still remain to be filled in. No one seems to know, for example, why all 64 closed-circuit television cameras aboard the Sewol were turned off at 8:30:59 on April 16, just a little before the ship’s sinking, or why 18 minutes later, the Automatic Identification System (AIS) was turned off and did not record the ship’s trajectory at the critical moment.

And larger questions remain to be answered. Who’s responsible for negligent safety inspections? Why did the government fail to rescue a single life from the sinking vessel? Where did official communications or the chain of command break down to cause confusion, chaos, and misinformation? Will those responsible be held accountable for their failures?

On May 29, the Korean parliament created a special committee to investigate the Sewol accident, but it proved dysfunctional from the beginning. Its operation was stymied by repeated clashes between the two main political parties, the conservative Saenuri Party and the liberal Democratic Alliance for New Politics. Furthermore, the ministries and agencies called to report to the special committee dragged their feet and revealed little that was new. Two days before it was due to testify, the Park administration made an effective investigation difficult by releasing only 13 materials out of the 269 requested by liberal members of the committee. The committee ended its work without even holding a hearing.

As the special committee failed, so too did the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI), Korea’s counterpart to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. After it performed an audit of the Park administration’s conduct, it concluded that the presidential office was not responsible for the Sewol failure. The sole basis of its conclusion seemed to be a government statement that “the Blue House is not the control tower of disaster management.” (The Blue House is Korea’s counterpart to the White House.) It also turned out that the BAI had sent a couple of low-ranking officials to audit the Blue House, and they completed their work even without examining the reports that had been submitted to the president on the day of the accident.

This failure to bring out the truth was accompanied by the efforts of the National Intelligence Service (NIS)and the police to silence the victims’ families and their supporters.

The police monitored the victims’ families when they held meetings and blocked them when they tried to reach the Blue House to make a direct appeal to the president. The riot police isolated the families and their supporters by surrounding them with a wall of police buses. An unidentified person reportedly snooped around the hometown of a victim’s father in what looked like a fishing expedition. An NIS agent paid a visit to the hospital that employed a doctor who was helping the victims’ families and had a meeting with its director to inquiry about the doctor’s background.

Meanwhile, a media offensive spread negative rumors about the families. Representative Min Byung-Du alleged that “the rumors are being spread through specific channels created by an expansion and reorganization of what looks like the ruling group’s psychological warfare unit that operated during the last presidential election campaign.”

The Sewol Families Committee sent a letter to President Park on August 22. In it, the families pointed out that “there is a larger issue at stake than specific issues related to a special law” and “that is whether the truth will be revealed or hidden.”

“We have come to know that at the center of the efforts to hide the truth stands the Blue House,” the families wrote. ”The president said that the truth must be unearthed lest the families should have any remorse, but has even refused to submit materials to the audit by the parliament.”

The victims’ families demand that a special law be instituted that would create an independent committee with subpoena and prosecutorial powers in order to find the causes of the wreck that killed their loved ones. They believe that creating an independent committee is critical to finding an answer to questions about the Sewol’s sinking and the government’s failure to rescue. Kim Young-O, father of one of the victims, even staged a hunger strike for 46 days to demand just that.

The Park administration and the ruling Saenuri Party have thus far refused to listen to their demand for truth. What are they afraid of?

J.J. Suh is the author of Power, Interest and Identity in Military Alliances (2007), and editor of Truth and Reconciliation in South Korea (2012), Origins of North Korea’s Juche (2012) and Rethinking Security in East Asia (2004).

Copublished with Foreign Policy in Focus


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