Korean History 101: Sinking of the Sewol Ferry

yellow ribbon
Yellow Ribbon image pays respect to the victims of the tragic event

When people think of history, they tend to think of events that took place decades and even centuries ago. “American history” tends to call up images of the founding fathers in military dress and white powdered wigs (especially with the rise of hit Broadway musical “Hamilton”), while “Korean history” usually brings up images of the kings and queens of the Joseon dynasty (at least for international viewers of historical dramas). (Side note: What does “Canadian history” bring to mind?)

This month on “Korean History 101,” we will be taking a look at a historical event so recent that any mention of it can still bring raw emotions to the surface for many South Korean people. This April, many Koreans (including celebrities) paid tribute to the two-year anniversary since the Sewol ferry (세월호) capsized on the route to Jeju Island (제주도), killing around 300 people.

April 16, 2014

The ferry known as the Sewol was a passenger ship, weighing almost 7000 tons, that was making a trip to Jeju Island, a popular tourist destination. More than 400 passengers were aboard on April 16, 2014. More than 300 of them were high school students from the city of Ansan (안산) on a school field trip.

A little before 9 a.m., the ship made a left turn while passing through the Maengol Strait (맹골수도), just off the coast of Jindo Island (진도). At that point, the ship began listing sharply to the left. A little more than an hour later, it had capsized completely. More than 300 people died that day, including passengers and crew members. 172 were rescued; 9 bodies are still unaccounted for. It was South Korea’s largest peacetime maritime tragedy since 1970.

How did it happen?

Three separate agencies, the Korea Maritime Safety Tribunal, the Prosecution Service, and the Board of Audit and Inspection carried out investigations to discover the cause of the Sewol ferry sinking. The weather conditions had not been notably dangerous and the ship was going at an approved pace. In the end, the agencies identified three main reasons for the capsizing.

The first reason was an amalgamation of too much cargo, modifications to the ferry, and loss of required ballast water. All these factors were related to one another: the ferry was built in Japan in 1994 and purchased by the Chunghaejin Marine Company (청해진해운) in 2012. The Company then renovated the upper decks to make the ship capable of holding 114 more passengers, but the renovations made the ferry top-heavy. While a regulating agency approved the modifications, they set limits on the amount of cargo weight it could carry as well as the amount of ballast water the ship needed.

On April 16, 2014, the ship was carrying more than twice the maximum cargo limit and not enough ballast water. The Prosecution Service has accused the company who owned the ship of deliberately draining ballast water in order to load more cargo. Ballast is used in boats to provide stability and prevent capsizing. Boats that are not sufficiently ballasted could tip in high wind, and tipping too far would result in capsizing.

The second reason was due to improper securing of the vehicles and cargo aboard. When the ferry took a sharp turn, about 1100 tons of shipping containers and 80 vehicles fell to one side and the ferry tilted by 30 degrees. The ship would not recover from the blow.

The third reason was due to poor steering. The Prosecution Service stated that the captain had not been present at the bridge despite the risk presented by the narrow strait that the ship was travelling through. The Maenggol strait has strong underwater currents, though the conditions on that day were not particularly dangerous. However, the steering had been left to the 25-year-old third mate, who had not had prior experience steering through the strait. The third mate, along with a crew member, made a sharp turn despite recommendations against the manoeuvre.

Who is to blame?

Though its status as a peninsula means that South Korea has seen its fair share of maritime disasters, multiple factors contributed to the enormous public outcry that erupted from the tragedy.

First, the sinking was a tragedy in its own right, having killed more than 300 people. The young age of many of the deceased also contributed to much of the pain and grief; the families of many of the high school students continue to this day to call for a deeper investigation into the tragedy and the South Korean government.

Second, it was thought (with justification) that many of the deaths had not been inevitable. The ship had tilted, but it had been equipped with life jackets and lifeboats (as any passenger ship was required to do). However, it soon became apparent that the captain and the crew had abandoned the vessel shortly after the capsizing without taking proper emergency measures to secure the safety of the passengers. The captain and crew instructed the passengers to stay inside the ship, despite the continuing tilt, and eventually it became too late to effect a manageable escape.

The KSMT report stated that the captain and crew had been improperly trained in emergency measure. The captain and crew were vilified by the public, arrested, and charged with murder. The prosecution even requested that the captain face the death penalty, but eventually he and the crew were given prison sentences on the charges of neglect and desertion.

Various agencies responsible for emergency response and rescue were also charged for botched rescue attempts, professional negligence, and forgery of records. Many people felt that the Coast Guard did not respond effectively or efficiently to the emergency, and some continue to call for deeper investigation into the agency, as well as the current government, whom they accuse of covering up much of the tragedy in order to avoid public disgrace.

The owner of the Chunghaejin Marine Company was also called for questioning. The Prosecution Service claimed in its report that the unsafe modifications to the ferry were made because the company’s finances were failing due to the chief executives’ mismanagement, fraud, and embezzlement. The owner, Yoo Byung Eun (유병언), failed to appear for questioning and was later found dead. (He committed suicide.) The vice principal of the high school from which many of the dead students came also committed suicide shortly after the disaster.

Two Years Later

In April 2016, the South Korean government announced plans to recover the wreckage of the ferry, ostensibly in order to search for the 9 bodies that are still missing. The plan is expected to be difficult to carry out, due to the weight of the ship and the strong currents in the area (the currents had also complicated the search to recover the bodies shortly after the tragedy). It is hoped that the recovery of the ship may provide the answers and the closure that many people still seek, but mistrust of the government still runs high, with the recent legislative elections in South Korea dealing a blow to President Park Geun Hye (박근혜)’s political party.

As the musical “Hamilton” once said about another senseless death of a teenager, the people of South Korea, as well as the families affected by the tragedy, are still learning to live with the unimaginable.

Sources: Suk Kyoon Kim’s “The Sewol Ferry Disaster in Korea and Maritime Safety Management” in Ocean Development & International Law (46:345–358, 2015), CNN’s “South Korea outlines plan to salvage Sewol two years after it capsized,” and South Florida Sun – Sentinel’s “Ferry disaster remains a painful topic in S. Korea”

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