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S Korea: Secrets of the capsized ferry

S Korea's president vows to put her house in order after Sewol rescue operations are criticised by nation.

Last updated: 01 May 2014 08:06
Andrei Lankov

Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of "The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia".
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Frantic rescue efforts followed the capsizing of the ferry, but the results were disappointing, writes Lankov [EPA]

More than a year has passed since Park Geun-hye was elected the first female president of the Republic of Korea. Usually, the inauguration of a new president in South Korea produces a wave of popular enthusiasm, but this enthusiasm soon gives way to disappointment, hostility and plummeting approval ratings. Up until recently, Park had avoided this fate and maintained a remarkably high level of popularity. But in the last two weeks it seems that she has begun to face growing alienation and distrust from below. The reason for this abrupt change is the Sewol ferry disaster.

Sewol ferry made regular voyages from Incheon, the major sea port that serves the South Korean capital, and the largest Korean island, Jeju, a major tourist destination. The 6,800-tonne ship was built in Japan in 1994, and in 2012 was bought by Chonghaejin Marine Co to serve the Seoul-Incheon route. 

On April 15, the Sewol left Incheon and sailed south. There were 476 people on board, most of whom were high school students on a trip to the island. The next morning, on April 16, the ferry was near the south-western corner of the Korean peninsula. The weather was good, the air was clear and the third mate was on the bridge in charge of the ship.

Then something happened. Due to reasons that so far remain unknown, at 8:52am the third mate ordered a sharp turn which caused the ship to list. The ferry lost stability - likely because the cargo and cars inside the ship began to move. In minutes, the ship reported an emergency and asked for assistance. Because the incident happened within 15 miles of the coast and in the immediate vicinity of many islands, the first rescue groups arrived in 10-15 minutes.

Captain's orders

While the ship was listing increasingly violently, the crew used the ship's intercom to tell passengers to stay where they were - obviously, in order to prevent panic. The Sewol passengers, most of whom were teenagers and their teachers, demonstrated remarkable courage and self-control and followed the orders. With the wisdom of hindsight it is clear that this was a great mistake. Had they rushed to the upper deck, some people may have died as a result of panic, but many more would have been saved. However, most people remained in their cabins until 9:40am when the ship capsized, trapping some 250 passengers inside. For nearly an hour, some of the passengers still could sent messages from their mobile phones.

There are suspicions that Yoo, being the major shadow figure beyond Chonghaejin Marine, used bribery or connections to get permission for the dangerous modifications of the Sewol. While these suspicions remain unproven, investigators have already uncovered an impressive number of illegal or dubious activities.

Frantic rescue efforts followed, but the results were disappointing. Nearly all the survivors were those who ignored the orders and rushed to the upper deck of the ship - only a few people were rescued from inside the capsizing ship in the first minutes of disaster. There were 174 survivors. Some 90 people are still listed as "missing", but the chances that any of them are alive are practically zero. It seems the disaster took the lives of about 300 people.

A massive public outrage was caused by the crew's shameful behaviour and, especially, 69-year-old Lee Chun-sok, the ferry's substitute captain (the regular captain was on vacation at the time of the disaster). While some crewmembers did everything they could to save people and even sacrificed their own lives to ensure the survival of the passengers, most of them escaped without even warning passengers of the grave threat they faced.

The captain himself was one of the first to escape the sinking ship. Pictures of Lee Chun-sok, undressed and running for his life to a rescue boat, have been reproduced countless times in the Korean media. There is little doubt that most of the 300 victims died because the captain ordered passengers to remain inside the doomed ship.

However, soon public anger began to move in the direction of targets higher up. It was soon discovered that Chonghaejin Marine, the company which owned the ship, made major modifications to increase the capacity of the ship. As a result, it became heavier than it was designed to be. This resulted in steering and stability problems, which were pointed out by its regular captain who notified his superiors. These warnings were ignored, however. Currently, some employees of the Chonghaejin Marine are under investigation.

Soon it was discovered that Chonghaejin Marine is actually owned by Yoo Byung-eun, the former president of the now defunct Semo Group. This company had a very dubious reputation and was implicated in a number of ugly scandals. It seems that after declaring bankruptcy in 1997, Yoo continued his business activities through a number of shell companies.

There are suspicions that Byung-eun, being the major shadow figure beyond Chonghaejin Marine, used bribery or connections to get permission for the dangerous modifications of the Sewol. While these suspicions remain unproven, investigators have already uncovered an impressive number of illegal or dubious activities.

The sea mafia

Attention switched to the issue of shipping security in general. In the last few weeks the South Korean media has talked about hefia. The word is a recently minted fusion of the Sino-Korean hae meaning sea and English-Italian word mafia. The sea-mafia is a term applied to a network of officials and ex-officials who control maritime and shipping activities in the country.

Thus unfavourable attention has started to be directed towards the country's civil service in general and certain retired bureaucrats in particular. The old-boys network of businessmen, retired officials and officials currently in positions of power has come under scrutiny. Of special significance is the revolving door that exists between well-connected business interests and influential government officials. The established tradition of appointing retired officials to high-level positions in corporations and business associations - the prospects of such comfortable and lucrative retirement have always been a major perk of official positions - has come under sustained scrutiny of late. There is good reason to believe that this worrying fusion of public and private interests resulted in the disregard for safety regulations that were one of the major causes of the Sewol disaster.

On a different note, much of the voting public believes that the government did not manage the rescue operations properly. The implication being that all the people who could have been saved were not and once again, it is top officials who are being blamed. It is not clear whether such accusations are correct. In private conversations with some foreign specialists, I was told that the South Korean rescue teams reacted very quickly and worked with great bravery and skill - unlike the crew. Nonetheless, it seems that the belief that rescue operations could and should have been done differently is widespread.

Accepting responsibility for the disaster, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won resigned. President Park, having delivered an apology, professes her willingness to get her house in order. However, it is an open question to what extent such efforts will help her going forward.  

Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of "The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia".

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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