Sewol’s financial costs mount

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Sewol’s financial costs mount

The June 4 local elections, dubbed a vote of confidence on President Park Geun-hye halfway through her five-year term in the wake of the country’s worst-ever maritime calamity, delivered an equivocal result. The tragic Sewol ferry saga, however, is hardly a finished story.

An inspection team from the International Marine Contractors Association reportedly was appalled by what it learned during a 10-day examination of the disaster zone. None of the international safety codes for commercial diving operations - such as banning divers from entering waters when currents exceed 1 knot - had been followed. As a result, two civilian divers died during the rescue mission. The international inspector warned divers they could lose their commercial diving license if they continue to ignore safety regulations and break windows to get inside the hull. Glass can damage breathing apparatus and jeopardize divers’ lives.

The next dilemma would be how long authorities should continue the search. Thanks to the valiant role of civilian divers, the missing toll has been radically reduced to 13 from nearly 300. But the public won’t agree to end the search unless the last body has been recovered. It is a matter of traditional Asian values and customs to pay ritual obligations and respect to the dead.

A search mission is deemed a success if 75 percent of bodies are recovered from a capsized boat. But in about 50 days, Korean divers returned 95 percent of the bodies missing from the Sewol ferry to their families. A responsible state should continue the search for its civilians to the end. Israel searched for victims for a year from a sunken ship. Americans still carry on with searches for thousands of missing people from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks 13 years ago.

But the whereabouts of the still-missing bodies are unknown. Two bodies of teenage girls have been discovered 2 to 4 kilometers (1.25 to 2.5 miles) from where the ferry sank. Another body was retrieved near an island about 40 kilometers away from the disaster zone. Salvagers have reached a point where they cannot ignore the safety of divers exhausted from nearly two months of operations. But in order to persuade families to end the search, divers would have to rummage through the ship with cameras to show that there are no visible bodies left inside.

The next step of pulling up the wreck would be no easier. When cables and wires that are more than 70 centimeters (2.3 feet) thick tie around the ship heavier with the weight of water and soggy furnishings, they will ruin the cabins and decks made mostly of lightweight steel or aluminum and possibly the human remains inside, when pulled up. This is why families of missing passengers insist the ship be raised above the waters only after all bodies have been recovered. The cost of salvaging the ship could come in anywhere between 200 billion won ($197 million) and 30 trillion won.

The cheapest - but unlikely - option would be leaving a float to mark the area and leave the crippled ship underwater. Some suggest towing the wreck underwater to anchor it to a nearby island. But we cannot simply give up salvaging Sewol because of financial cost and difficulties. The wreckage could get in the way of international sea routes. We would have to clear the ship under international regulations if its location within the rocky channel interferes with sea traffic. Dumping the ship could risk environmental damage. Divers have sealed off fuel channels, but oil could spill into the waters when the wreckage corrodes. It must be removed from the sea in order not to hurt the livelihood of the fishermen in the area. The disaster zone also is close to a national maritime park.

The final bill of the salvage operation may be astronomical. Because of the gravity of the crisis - with more than 200 students lost in the disaster - salvage has been carried out without any consideration of the cost. Salvagers tried every experiment possible, sought help from commercial freighters, tow boats and cranes. Regardless of their services, the rented facilities will accrue charges.

A presidential spokesman raised an uproar by saying that finding divers isn’t easy and they cost about 1 million won per day. But he is correct. The international rate for deep-sea commercial diving is approximately $1,300 per day. Some would argue the figure is preposterous. But at the end of the day, taxpayers will have to pick up the tab for the commercial salvage operation. Insurance coverage for the Sewol reportedly does not exceed 10 billion won.

All these remaining problems must be dealt through talks between the government and victim families. The process won’t be smooth, with families having little faith in the government. Commercial experts also hesitate to get involved because of political risk. It is urgent that Yoo Byung-eun and his family, de facto owners of the Sewol, are brought to justice to pay for their liabilities.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 9, Page 34

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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