South Korean Ferry Captain Learns His Fate

A few months ago we talked about the South Korean ferry accident of April 16, 2014, which took over 300 lives.  Most of those who died were teenagers from one high school on a class trip.  The circumstances surrounding this incident sparked national anger and grief, and the South Korean president disbanded the nation’s Coast Guard in response to its clumsy handling of the rescue effort.

In that previous discussion, we talked about the obligations a captain of a ship has to ensure the safety of his or her passengers.  While international maritime law does not really require a captain to “go down with the ship” there are certain duties imposed on the captain of a vessel, especially one carrying passengers.

Lee Joon-seok, the 69 year old captain of the MV Sewol, was sentenced to 36 years in prison for his role in the tragedy.  The chief engineer was sentenced to 30 years in prison for failing to assist two injured crew members.  The first mate and the second mate were sentenced to 20 and 15 years in prison respectively.  Eleven other members of the crew were tried for various lesser offenses ranging from criminal negligence to accidental homicide.  They were sentenced to periods of time from ranging from 5 to 20 years.

The operators of the ferry line have also been put on trial, and there may be charges against some of the regulators for dereliction of their duties.  The president of the shipping lines has been sentenced to 10 years for failing to stop the cargo overloading problem.  Six other officials of the company have been tried, with four receiving lesser sentences, and two receiving suspended sentences.  The owner of the shipping company disappeared after an arrest warrant was issued, and was later found dead.


The ferry was traveling from to an island off the coast of South Korea from the port of Incheon.  An inexperienced third mate was by himself at the helm, and he executed a too-sharp turn that caused the overloaded and poorly loaded cargo to go flying, which ultimately caused the ship to capsize and sink.

The captain and senior members of the crew evacuated the ship immediately, on the first rescue ships to arrive.  This left only the less experienced members of the crew on board.  The passengers were told repeatedly to stay put where they were, and this led to the high number of deaths.  Even though it took the ship 2 ½ hours to completely sink, which should have been enough time to rescue most of the passengers, confusion and lack of leadership were contributing to the disaster.

The tragedy was the result of the perfect storm of poor training and bad decisions.  The ferry company, which bought the ship in 2012, had illegally modified it considerably to accommodate more passengers.  This made it top heavy and unstable.  There were allegations that the cargo was overloaded on over half the runs it made.  On the day of the incident, it was carrying twice the amount legally allowed, and much of it was secured poorly.

The captain’s decision to leave the ship was a decidedly poor one.  Images of him in his underwear as he was being rescued flooded the media.  Supposedly he was in his quarters changing his clothes at the time of the fateful turn, but he was not really required to be on deck every moment.

One piece of information that was not readily available was that this captain was a substitute for the regular captain and had only been on the job a short time.  The previous captain had been aware of the instability of the ship and had also requested a repair for malfunctioning steering on the ship.  He knew the company had been warned about the lack of seaworthiness of the ship, and he continued to warn the company throughout the previous year.  He was threatened with firing for causing such problems.  This means the company had notice of the issues with the ship.

The Trial

South Korean prosecutors had charged Lee with homicide through willful negligence and asked for the death penalty.  The three judge panel could not find sufficient evidence to be found guilty of that charge.  He was found guilty of gross negligence which caused the deaths, and his sentence was the maximum allowed.

The decision acquitted the captain of the murder charge, but said that he and the crew did not do enough to help the passengers.  That negligence, however, did not amount to an intent to kill.   The judges also accepted the contention that Lee did give an evacuation order before he left the ship, but for some reason that was never conveyed to the passengers.

The defense lawyers maintained that Lee and the crew were being made scapegoats for the tragic incident, and the judges seemed to agree that they were not the only ones at fault for the loss of lives.  In the statement of the verdict read, the judges also blamed the ferry company who spent little on training of the crew (allegedly the “training budget” was a total of $2 U.S. for paper certificates!) and who required the overloaded ferry to run.  The decision also blamed regulators who took bribes to turn a blind eye to complaints on those issues, and even the nation’s Coast Guard, who botched early rescue attempts.


It appears no one is happy with the verdict.  Some families of the victims are outraged, because many of them think the murder charges were appropriate, and that the death penalty should be the sentence.   The prosecution is not happy for the same reason.  The defendants think the sentences are too harsh and should be lessened.

The decision was handed down November 11, and both the prosecution (government) and the defendants had a week to file an appeal.   It appears now that all 15 defendants and the prosecution have appealed the findings to a higher court.

The outcome of the appeal will be interesting to watch.  There are those in the maritime industry who think the sentences far too harsh, while the public opinion in Korea seems to side with the families who are crying out for harsher retribution.