A half-baked investigation
The prosecution has announced the results of its investigation into the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry accident in April. As expected, the prosecution singled out three major causes for the massive disaster: the Chonghaejin Marine Company’s excessive renovation of the ship to carry more cargo; the crew’s inept navigation; as well as their negligence in carrying out their duties.
The prosecution also placed blame on the Jindo Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) for its dereliction of duty and the Korea Coast Guard, and put to rest the rumor that the ferry sank after colliding with another ship or reef.
However, the prosecution seems to have made no new revelations into the structural corruption in the maritime industry and the officialdom in charge of overseeing it. The prosecution announced yesterday that it arrested 88 officials for their dubious connections with their clients in the shipping industry after thorough probes of their safety and navigation logs. But only four officials have just been prosecuted, including the former head of the maritime safety division of the Incheon Regional Maritime Affairs and Port Administration, who received bribes from the Chonghaejin Marine Company for turning a blind-eye to its malpractice.
Regarding unprofessional rescue efforts by the maritime authorities, too, the prosecution only filed charges against the captain of the rescue boat and the staff at the Jindo VTS for not instructing the passengers to immediately jump into the sea as well as making fake documents after the disaster. Only three high-ranking officials from the Korea Coast Guard, including Deputy Chief Choi Sang-hwan, were accused of favoring Undine Marine Industries, a private maritime salvage company on contract with the Coast Guard.
Little progress has been made in the investigations into the alleged corruption committed by the family of the late Yoo Byung-eun, the de facto owner of the Chonghaejin, the sunken ferry’s operator. Even though Yoo’s family was able to get his debts erased to make a remarkable comeback, the prosecution still fell short of solving the mystery. The prosecution also denied public suspicions over the existence of government lobbyists for Yoo and his alleged purchase of expensive golf clubs for lobbying purposes. Such vague investigation results will only fan suspicion among the public.
Now the ball is in the special prosecution’s court. If independent counsels want to get to the bottom of one of the worst maritime disasters in Korea, they must clear common suspicions first.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 7, Page 30