Lee Joon-seok, the captain of the South Korean ferry that capsized in April, has been sentenced to 36 years in prison for his role in the sinking of the Sewol. Of the 476 people on board the ferry, more than 300 people died in the shipwreck, and almost 250 of them were high school students on a field trip.
Lee was convicted of gross negligence that caused death and injury, but was acquitted of the murder charges that the prosecutors had sought. The judges concluded that Lee’s negligence was not tantamount to an intent to kill, and they also said that he was not the only person responsible for the tragedy. Indeed, Lee was tried along with 14 other crew members, including the chief engineer, who was sentenced to 30 years. The other 13 crew members were given sentences from five to 20 years.
Lee is in his late 60s, and during the trial he accepted that he will spend the rest of his life in jail. However, the verdict was condemned as insufficient by families of the victims, many of whom wanted the entire surviving crew to be executed. In connection with the murder charges, Lee originally faced the death penalty, and prosecutors may appeal today’s ruling to again seek this harsher penalty.
Animosity toward the captain and crew can always be expected after a shipwreck, but the sinking of the Sewol seemed to call for a special kind of outrage. Most obviously, the captain and most of the crew made it off the vessel safely while the majority of the passengers went down with the ship. Captains are not required under international maritime law to go down with their vessels, but abandoning ship when there are still passengers on board is something of a taboo in the sailing world.
What’s more, several survivors testified that when the ship encountered problems, they were instructed to stay in the vessel, which proved to be a death sentence once the ship capsized and trapped them inside. Life jackets and life rafts were also not adequately deployed, and in fact the order to evacuate the ship may have never been given. If passengers had been instructed to evacuate and plans were executed to this end, the death toll would not have been nearly so high. Finally, the ship’s troubles started when the captain wasn’t even at the helm. He was changing in his room, and he acknowledged in court that the person he left steering the ship did not have the requisite skills.
Much blame can be placed on the captain and crew, but their shortcomings, both professional and moral, are not exclusively responsible for the wreck. One major factor that contributed to the ship’s capsizing was its cargo, which was more than twice the ferry’s limit and wasn’t properly secured, and this may be the fault of Cheonghaejin Marine Co, who operated the vessel and whose executives are currently facing trial. Vast amounts of shifting cargo on a vessel being steered by a person without the proper training is a recipe for disaster, a grimly literal expression in this case, and the disaster was made worse by the failure to execute anything resembling an adequate evacuation plan.