Tip-off of ferry tragedy raid probed

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Tip-off of ferry tragedy raid probed

A Coast Guard official allegedly tipped off the Korean Register of Shipping (KRS) an hour before a prosecution raid on its headquarters in Busan to search for evidence of regulatory irregularities that could have caused the sinking of the Sewol ferry.

According to the Busan District Prosecutors’ Office and the Coast Guard, a 41-year-old Coast Guard official surnamed Lee sent a text message on April 24 to a legal team director at the shipping industry classification and inspecting agency, telling him the prosecutors would raid his office in an hour.

“The raid and seizure team is on its way in an hour,” read the message.

The prosecutors, who are looking into possible malpractice or corrupt links between the KRS and the Chonghaejin Marine Company, the operator of the Sewol, said investigators felt vital documents about Chonghaejin had been removed by the time they reached the KRS office.

“Not only do we now know that word [of the raid] was leaked an hour before, we also suspect it was leaked a day before,” a prosecutor involved in the probe told the JoongAng Ilbo, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The prosecutors’ raid of the KRS came eight days after the sinking of the Sewol and amid growing suspicions that the inspector had failed to meet its obligations to properly examine the safety of the five-story ferry that capsized while carrying 476 passengers and crew.

As of yesterday, 304 were confirmed dead or were still missing in the country’s worst maritime disaster.

Prosecutors and the Coast Guard are questioning the Coast Guard sergeant surnamed Lee, asking if he tipped off a KRS official, why and how he obtained information about the raid since he was not on the investigation team.

The Coast Guard suspended Lee yesterday.

The KRS is one of 10 agencies that classifies and conducts safety inspections of ships and grades their safety levels. The gradings are used by insurance companies to set insurance rates.

The KRS is the only Korean classification and inspection agency. The other nine are foreign. The sunken Sewol was one of the 2,900 ships KRS inspected.

The KRS inspection report of the Sewol from January 2013 is available on the KRS website.

In the report, the KRS said it checked and approved the Sewol’s stability in the water through an inclination test in January 2013. It also said it confirmed all cargo was properly secured within the ferry. One of the big questions in the Sewol tragedy is whether its cargo, and particularly the vehicles it was carrying, maybe have come loose.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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