Friday, April 25, 2014

South Korea: Update--Death Toll Reaches 181 in Ferry Sinking, Time for Maritime Enforcement

According to, frustrated relatives of the scores still missing from the capsized ferry Sewol have staged a marathon confrontation with South Korea’s fisheries minister and the Coast Guard chief. 

Families surrounded them in an overnight stand-off that lasted into today as they vented their rage at the pace of search efforts.

At the moment, the death toll has risen to 181, most of them high school students who were only beginning to live their lives.

Relatives occasionally shouted, accusing the officials of lying about the operation and asking why hundreds of civilian divers have not been permitted to join Coast Guard and Navy efforts in searching for bodies. 

COMMENT: It seems obvious that vessel inspectors and those responsible for enforcing maritime regulations aboard commercial vessels need to begin anew in order to rebuild passenger confidence in South Korea-registered vessels.

Having served in South Korea as US Regional Security Officer, it seems to be a component imbedded in Korean culture to go to extremes, which includes punishment.

It is my firm belief that the South Korean government went to extremes by arresting so many members of the crew, particularly the young third mate, Park Han-gyeol, 25, who the ferry captain did a disservice to by leaving her at the helm, unsupervised, on a heading she had never maneuvered before.

The captain was negligent in leaving one of the his least experienced officers at the helm, while the captain was in his cabin.

If  didn't have the stamina to do his job, he should have retired.

In the end, the master of a commercial vessel is the only person who should have been arrested.

Some 700 divers were working at the site of the April 16 wreck, said Koh Myung-seok, spokesman for the government-wide emergency task force. He said more than 340 volunteer divers visited, but only 16 had gone underwater.

Responding to complaints that the volunteers have been underutilized, Koh said some were allowed to dive but “left after taking photos or have come out of the water in less than 10 minutes. As a result, we have decided that civilian divers are slowing down the rescue process” and will not be allowed to participate.

Eleven crew members, including the captain, have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need as the ferry sank on its way from Incheon port to the southern island of Jeju.

Moon Ki-han, a vice president at Union Transport, which loaded the Sewol’s cargo, said it was carrying an estimated 3,608 tons of cargo, far more than Captain Lee Joon-seok is said to have reported in paperwork submitted to the Korea Shipping Association. 

MP Kim Yung-rok of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, an opposition party, said he had documents from the Korean Register of Shipping that show the ferry was transporting more than three and a half times more cargo than regulators allowed.

Kim, a cargo inspector, examining the ship as it was being modified to carry more passengers, found that its centre of gravity had been raised 51 centimeters; its cargo limit would have to be reduced by more than half, from 2,437 tons to 987 tons. 

Officials with South Korea’s maritime ministry and Coast Guard each said they were not even aware of the ferry'a cargo capacity, saying it was the shipping association’s job to oversee it. The shipping association is private and is partly funded by the industry it regulates.

Even the report by the inspector reflects “a problem in the system”, said Lee Gwee Bok, president of Incheon Port Development Association and a former captain, who said the Sewol never should have been cleared for operation because the register should have known the shipowner would never fulfill the  spirit of the regulations.