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The sentencing of Lee Jun-seok

Photo: Ahn Young-joon/PA

‘The crowds outside the court in Gwangju shouted “murderer” at Lee Joon-seok when he arrived for initial hearings. Inside court, his lawyers argued that while he had made mistakes, he couldn’t do anything about his employer’s policy of overloading the ships with cargo. His employer, the public also learned, had used fake documents to get its license from the Korean Register of Shipping and had only spent $500 on safety education in the whole of 2013. When the investigators’ trail led to the person they believed was the real owner of Chonghaejin Marine, President Park [Geun-hye] didn’t mince her words. “The Yoo Byung-eun family is the root cause of this calamity”, she said.’


In DG#15 we published a piece on the fallout from one the worst tragedies in South Korea’s history. It focused on the mysterious figure of Yoo Byung-eun, who through a murky network of cross-holdings owned the MV Sewol, the boat that sunk with over 300 people – mostly schoolchildren – onboard on April 16th.

This morning the Gwangju court delivered its verdict. The boat’s captain Lee Joon-seok was sentenced to 36 years in prison for gross negligence. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for the 69-year-old, but he was acquitted of murder because no intent to kill could be proven. He is likely to die in prison.

Many Koreans believe today’s verdict is too lenient. If the passengers had been promptly and efficiently evacuated many would have survived, but the crew urged them to stay inside the vessel. Lee and his crew evacuated the boat and saved their own lives before helping their passengers.

Yoo Byung-eun was an artist, an inventor, an author, a leader of a strange religious organisation (considered by some to be a cult) and – unhelpfully for the prosecutors hunting him for gross negligence relating to Sewol – found dead in a field in early June. His eldest son was sentenced to three years in prison for embezzlement. A further 11 ferry company officials face up to 15 years in prison on accidental homicide charges.

Sentencing the crew and ferry company owners will not fully address the issue of culpability. As we discovered while researching our article, a range of political and social factors contributed to the disaster. It will be necessary for the South Korean government to look beyond the actions of individuals and fix structural problems to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

To read our article on Sewol, pick up issue #15 of Delayed Gratification here.

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