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South Korea Opens Another Investigation into Sewol Disaster

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By The Maritime Executive 11-13-2019 01:00:03

South Korean authorities are opening another investigation into the 2014 sinking of the ferry Sewol, which claimed the lives of about 304 people. The overwhelming majority of the victims were high school students. 

The new criminal inquiry will follow up on leads generated by the long-running civil investigation into the circumstances of the sinking and the post-accident response. The long-running special committee conducting the civil investigation will transfer pertinent findings and records to the new prosecutorial team. 

On April 16, 2014, the Sewol capsized on a trip from Incheon to the holiday island of Jeju. As the vessel began to slowly capsize, the Sewol's crew ordered passengers to remain inside to await rescue. At the same time, the captain and many members of the crew abandoned ship early and survived. 

The sinking of the Sewol was a national tragedy, and it has been a major flash point in Korean politics for years. Accident investigators determined that the Sewol was carrying twice its permitted cargo tonnage and that crew had discharged ballast water in order to compensate for the overloading, reducing stability. Inquiries found that the ferry's operators were aware of routine overloading aboard the vessel and that regulators did not take action to correct this practice.

Criminal investigations into the Sewol sinking have already netted multiple successful prosecutions. On May 15, 2014, the captain and three crewmembers were charged with murder, and 11 other members of the crew were indicted for abandoning the ship. Lee Joon-seok, the captain, was convicted and sentenced to 36 years in prison for abandoning passengers, but he was acquitted of murder charges. Other crew members received jail terms ranging from 5 to 30 years. 

Multiple company officers were also prosecuted in relation to the sinking. An arrest warrant was issued for Yoo Byung-eun, the chairman of Chonghaejin Marine, which operated Sewol; his body was found near one of his properties about two months after the casualty.

The sinking also had a lasting impact on the South Korean government. Then-prime minister Chung Hong-won and then-maritime minister Lee Ju-young announced their resignations shortly after the tragedy, and about 50 rescue-related officials were ordered to resign or face punishment. In 2017, then-President Park Geun-hye was impeached, removed from office and imprisoned in connection with unrelated corruption charges; the proceedings were heavily colored by the legacy of the Sewol accident. The following year, Lee Ju-young's successor as maritime minister, Kim Young-suk, was arrested and charged with obstructing the investigation into the casualty.

As the disaster's legacy is closely intertwined with Korean politics, the launch of a new criminal investigation has raised speculation about possibility of political motivations. Lim Gwan-hyeok, the prosecutor heading up the inquiry, downplayed these concerns in recent interviews.

“As the prosecutor general has said, the need for the prosecution’s take on the case has been brought up multiple times,” Lim told Korean media. “There are no other considerations than that of the pursuit of truth.”

Lim told Korea Herald that he believes that his team's investigation will be the last.