Gov’t goes to court over Sewol costs

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Gov’t goes to court over Sewol costs

In the latest of an ongoing series of legal battles following the April 16, 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy, the first trial in which the government is seeking financial reimbursement from key perpetrators began Monday.

Nearly two years after the maritime disaster killed more than 300 passengers on board, mostly high school juniors on a class trip to the southern resort island of Jeju, the Korean government is demanding the ferry’s operator, owner and key crew members reimburse it for some of the financial costs of the tragedy.

The government is claiming up to 187 billion won ($155 million) from a total of 25 people, including executives at Chonghaejin Marine Company, the ferry’s operator, and captain Lee Jun-seok, who’s currently serving a life sentence for homicide.

Chonghaejin Marine Company has refused to pay, claiming the government should share responsibility for the accident due to its lax supervision of state offices such as the Coast Guard.

The botched rescue attempt following the sinking of the Sewol was one of the key reasons so many passengers drowned, leading President Park Geun-hye to actually dismantle the Korea Coast Guard and set up a new Ministry of Public Safety and Security.

Lee has reportedly chimed in and denied to compensate for the money, saying he would later submit a written statement defending his position.

While the government has managed to sequestrate about 168 billion won worth of properties of the marine company and close aides of Yoo Byung-eun, leader of the company, it remains to be seen whether the state can keep it.

Yoo was the de facto owner of the Sewol ferry and former chairman of now-defunct Semo Group, the predecessor of Chonghaejin Marine Company. Semo Group was a large ferry and cruise operator that ran boat trips on the Han River in Seoul until it went bankrupt in 1997.

Yoo was found dead in July 2014, months after he went missing following the sinking of the Sewol. Once the nation’s most wanted fugitive, 1.3 million policemen were mobilized in his manhunt and an unprecedented 500 million won reward was offered for information about him.

The Sewol departed from Incheon for Jeju Island in April 2014 with 476 people on board. More than 300 perished.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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