Korea Coast Guard just isn’t set up for rescuing

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Korea Coast Guard just isn’t set up for rescuing

When the 6,825-ton Sewol, bound for the resort island of Jeju, capsized off the southwestern coast on April 16 at 9:30 a.m., the Korea Coast Guard’s Special Rescue Unit (SRU) was in Busan - some 400 kilometers (250 miles) away.

The team’s nine rescuers were ordered to head to the accident scene immediately. They drove to Gimhae International Airport to catch a military flight to Mokpo Airport. They climbed into a helicopter to make the final leg of the journey.

They didn’t arrive until 1:40 p.m. - almost four hours after the accident. By then, the ferry was completely capsized and the “tidal currents were too strong” for rescue operations, according to the Coast Guard.

The team were forced to retreat after barely getting wet.

In the wake of the tragedy that left more than 300 passengers dead or unaccounted for, a look into the Korea Coast Guard’s training tactics, budget and the career records of those in command hints at why they were unable to save more of the Sewol passengers.

“The Korea Coast Guard only focuses on patrols and investigations,” said Professor No Ho-rae of the maritime police science department at Kunsan National University. “When it comes to safety and rescue, they’re a Coast Guard in tremendous lack of the three necessary [elements]: budget, personnel and will.”

Of the Coast Guard’s budget of approximately 1.6 trillion won ($1.6 billion) last year, only 16.7 billion won was appropriated to maritime safety. About 227 billion won was appropriated to ocean patrol enforcement, which includes purchasing guard ships.

Of 17 helicopters owned by the Coast Guard, none are dedicated to the SRU. And some blame the commanders’ lack of rescue experience as another reason the agency was unable to save more lives in the accident. (A total of 172 passengers were rescued.)

Seven of the 14 highest-ranked officials in the Coast Guard have never worked on a naval vessel, including its head, Commissioner General Kim Suk-kyoon. Kim joined the Coast Guard in 1997 through a special recruitment after working three years at the Ministry of Government Legislation and passing the civil service exam.

Although the Coast Guard was separated from the National Police Agency in 1996, its top post usually goes to a head cop: 11 out of the 13 commissioner generals were from the National Police Agency.

“[The Coast Guard] focuses on investigations and patrols, using the budget and developing their organization in those fields, because policemen who are totally clueless about maritime safety have been commanding,” said Kim Gwang-soo, professor of maritime transportation systems at Mokpo National Maritime University.

From March 11 to 13, a month prior to the Sewol sinking, and in waters near where it sank, the Coast Guard’s West Regional Headquarters hosted a three-day exercise ostensibly to practice rescues. Eleven ships took part - which barely touched on saving passengers in an accident at sea.

The first day was dedicated to inspections of ships, the second to an exercise with communication systems, and the third to a drill on how to approach an accident scene. The only rescue practice involved hauling a few people wearing life vests from the sea.

BY SPECIAL REPORTING TEAM [selee@joongang.co.kr]

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