Lee Joon-seok, the captain of the South Korean Ferry Sewol that sank last month, has been charged with murder and if convicted could face the death penalty. Three other crew members – the chief engineer, Park Gi-ho, and his first and second mates, Kang Won-sik and Kim Young-ho – have also been charged with murder and likewise face the death penalty under South Korean law. Given that the death penalty has not been imposed in South Korea in nearly 20 years, it is unclear how likely it is that the captain and three crew members will be executed by the state. However, the sinking of the Sewol resulted in a particularly high death toll, with well over half of the ship’s passengers perishing as a result of the ship disaster. Nearly 300 passengers have been confirmed dead, and another 20 are still missing, presumed dead long ago. Most of the passengers on board were high school students on a field trip.
Not long after the ship sank, an arrest warrant was issued for the captain of the Sewol for abandoning ship, a criminal offense under South Korean maritime law. Shortly after this, the 14 crew members who were responsible for navigating the ship were also arrested for abandoning ship. Thus, everyone involved with sailing the Sewol has been charged with a crime, and now the four highest-ranking members of the crew have been charged with murder. (For the record, the responsibility for the sinking has spread far beyond the Sewol’s crew; even the Prime Minister of South Korea resigned in the wake of the disaster, taking responsibility for the shortcomings of the government’s rescue efforts.)
Although the case against the crew (and anyone else found to be involved in the disaster) will focus on every element of the sinking, like what exactly caused the ship to sink and who was steering it when this happened, perhaps the most attention will be directed at the botched evacuation of the Sewol. Even in our earliest reports about the disaster, when the death toll was rising slowly and hundreds were still only missing, we focused on the fact that so few people made it out of the ship before it began to sink. According to survivors, passengers were instructed via the ship’s loudspeakers to remain inside the vessel even after it began to list, and to make matters worse, prosecutors alleged that no order to abandon ship was ever issued. Moreover, life vests were not given out and life boats were not deployed. How the ship evacuation went so disastrously, and whether it could have gone differently, remains to be seen; however, what is known is that the captain and crew members who navigated the ship got off the boat safely while hundreds of passengers went down with the vessel, trapped inside.
It is not difficult to see why the captain and the crew are currently scorned by an entire nation, and why prosecutors brought serious charges with lethal consequences against them.