South Korean ferry operator gets 10 years in prison

The chief executive of the company that operated a South Korean ferry that sank in April, killing more than 300 people, was sentenced Thursday to 10 years in prison. 

Cheonghaejin Marine Chief Executive Kim Han-sik was found guilty of professional negligence causing death. Kim was also convicted of embezzling funds from the company and ordered to pay a fine of 2 million won (about $1,800) by a court in the city of Gwangju.

In his ruling, Judge Yim Jung-yeob pointed to Kim’s role in initiating the refurbishment of the Sewol, which increased the ferry’s capacity, making it top-heavy and more vulnerable to tipping over, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

Cheonghaejin Marine was criticized in the wake of the April 16 sinking for violating safety regulations and not providing the crew with adequate training in how to carry out an evacuation. Prosecutors had been seeking a prison term of 15 years for Kim.

Thursday’s verdict comes just over a week after the Sewol’s captain was convicted on the same charge. Captain Lee Joon-seok was found not guilty of homicide, the most serious charge he faced, but convicted of professional negligence causing death and sentenced to 36 years in prison.

Other members of the Sewol crew received sentences of between five and 20 years in prison. One senior member was convicted of homicide for abandoning two colleagues who were unable to flee the sinking ferry.

In the wake of the sinking, one of South Korea’s worst peacetime disasters, the captain and crew provoked public ire by fleeing the sinking ship without evacuating passengers. In court, Lee and his colleagues had argued that the unsafe condition of the ship was the fault of Cheonghaejin Marine, and that it was the Coast Guard’s responsibility to rescue passengers.

Lee on Monday formally initiated the appeal of his sentence. Prosecutors, meanwhile, have announced they will appeal the ruling that found Lee not guilty of homicide. 

This week, the South Korean minister of oceans and fisheries announced the disbandment of the ad hoc emergency response body that had been overseeing the Sewol rescue operation. Of the Sewol’s 476 passengers, 172 were rescued, 295 have been confirmed dead and nine remain missing, according to the ministry. 

As a response to the criticism it faced for the ineffective response to the Sewol sinking, South Korea announced on Wednesday the establishment of a new body, called the Ministry of Public Safety and Security, that will oversee disaster response efforts in the future. The Coast Guard was formally disbanded as a rebuke for its poor response to the sinking.

Borowiec is a special correspondent.

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