Korea Supreme Court Upholds Coast Guard Officers’ Acquittal in Sewol Loss

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Nine years after the tragic loss of the ferry Sewol (6,825 tons) that claimed the lives of 303 passengers, including high school students and their teachers, South Korea’s Supreme Court has upheld the acquittals of nine former and current senior officers of the Coast Guard. The casualty has long been surrounded by controversy and acquisitions from family members of cover ups which were further exasperated by today’s ruling from the Supreme Court.

The former chief of the Korea Coast Guard, Kim Seok-kyun, and eight other senior leaders of the Coast Guard were brought up on charges after repeated investigations into the casualty. The ferry Sewol was traveling to traveling to the southern resort island of Jeju and aboard were high school students and their teachers on a school field trip among a total of 476 passengers and crew. The vessel capsized on April 16, 2014, and 303 passengers died trapped inside the ferry, including 261 students, and 142 others were injured. Reports said that the survivors had all made their way on their own to deck and many jumped into the sea to be rescued. Only 172 people survived.

Kim and the eight other senior officers were indicted in February 2020 on charges of failing to properly oversee the rescue efforts. Prosecutors have long charged that they failed in their professional duties and if they had properly led rescue efforts more people could have been rescued from inside the ferry. 

Kim had apologized for the loss of life and failed rescue effort but pleaded not guilty saying that he and the senior officers were not aware of the full extent of the situation. He contended that based on the information they had he did not order an evacuation leaving it to the officers closer to the tragedy to manage the efforts. The defense cited reports from the captain and crew of the ferry which they said told the Coast Guard they had ordered passengers to evacuate the vessel. Survivors, however, told the court that the captain had told them to stay aboard to wait for the rescue and that the captain and crew then left the ship.

Nearly seven years after the tragedy, the first case began against the senior officers of the Coast Guard and they were acquitted by a lower court. There was a second trial in February 2023 and they were again found not guilty of charges ranging from professional misconduct to involuntary manslaughter. The Supreme Court in its new ruling found that there was no error in the previous rulings and no misunderstanding of the law.

The families and support groups were outraged by the verdict. They continue to argue if the senior officers had handled the situation properly more people could have been saved. The survey of the vessel showed that people had remained alive trapped inside the ferry.

The Supreme Court also suspended the prison sentences of the former head of the regional Coast Guard in Mokpo and the captain of one of the vessels who were charged with tampering with evidence in the case. Kim Moon-hong, head of the Mokpo station had a sentence of three years in prison suspended as did Captain Lee Jae-du who had commanded one of the rescue vessels. He had been sentenced to two years in jail.

The captain of the first Korea Coast Guard vessel to arrive after the accident, Kim Kyung-il however was previously convicted of charges of failing to rescue the passengers. He was sentenced to four years in jail for failing to execute the rescue and lying in media reports saying he had ordered the evacuation.

The captain of the Sewol survived after leaving the vessel and he was sentenced to 36 years for gross negligence. Other crewmembers received terms of up to 30 years. The owner of the Sewol was sentenced to 10 years, and other company officials were sentenced to three to six years, according to AP.

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