The sheer magnitude of the tragedy was pain enough for South Korea: more than 300 people, many of them high school students, lost in the April sinking of the Sewol ferry.
Then, as details of how the captain and crew behaved when the ship began taking on water came to light in the days and weeks afterward, a traumatized public became increasingly incensed.
Video showed Capt. Lee Joon-seok and crew members disembarking, some in their underwear, on the first rescue vessel that arrived on the scene. One crew member admitted drinking beer while waiting to be saved.
Meanwhile, hundreds of passengers were instructed to remain below deck instead of evacuating. Most perished, in one of South Korea’s worst peacetime disasters.
Quickly, the captain and crew were cast as villains as the nation struggled to understand how such a disaster could have happened, and who deserved the blame. When prosecutors announced this fall that they would seek the death penalty in their murder case against Lee, a rare move in South Korea, it seemed to reflect the depth of national anger.
But despite the prolonged pall the sinking cast over South Korea, judges on Tuesday delivered a dispassionate verdict, finding Lee, 69, not guilty of murder. Instead they convicted him of professional negligence resulting in death and sentenced him to 36 years in prison.
The ship’s chief engineer, Park Ki-ho, received a 30-year sentence after being found guilty of murder. He was steering the ferry when it took a sharp turn and lost its balance; the court specifically found that he abandoned two workers who were injured and couldn't evacuate. Thirteen other crew members received sentences of between five and 20 years for negligence.
Relatives of those who died expressed disappointment with the verdicts.
“It’s not at all understandable that they could get such a light punishment for killing more than 300 people,” Kwon Oh-hyun, older brother of a high school boy who died in the sinking and spokesman for the victims’ families committee, said by phone from Gwangju, a city near the site of the sinking and the venue for the trial.
“My family and I expected at least the death sentence for the captain, and life sentences for the crew,” Kwon said.
Defense lawyers had argued that the captain and crew were not responsible for the unsafe conditions of the ferry. In rendering its verdict, the court said it was not possible to demonstrate that Lee had any criminal intent to commit murder. However, it found that he and his crew did not take appropriate measures to save passengers.
Prosecutors said they would appeal. Their decision to seek the death penalty surprised many when it was announced, given the rarity of capital punishment in South Korea.
The seeking of the death penalty “was not only a judicial decision, but also a question of national sentiment. The public was very unhappy with the government response to the tragedy, and the government needed a scapegoat to deal with the fallout,” said Lee Jang-hie, a law professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
The verdicts came a few hours after the government announced a formal end to the Sewol search operation.
Officials said changed conditions inside the submerged ferry had made it too dangerous for divers to continue searching for nine people whose bodies have not been recovered. Of 476 passengers and crew members, 172 were rescued and 304 were confirmed dead or missing, 250 of them schoolchildren.
“We are sorry to say that though we had pledged to keep searching until we found the last person, we are no longer able to continue the search operation,” Lee Ju-young, South Korean minister of oceans and fisheries, said in a statement.
The government said some of the ferry’s floors and ceilings had collapsed, blocking the paths that divers had marked to navigate the inside of the ship and raising the risk that they could become trapped.
“We accept all responsibility for the nine people who were never found, and apologize,” Lee Ju-young said.
The Sewol was en route from Incheon, on South Korea’s northwestern coast, to the southern resort island of Jeju when the disaster occurred April 16. Throughout the long rescue operation, divers had difficulty reaching the hull of the ship because of strong currents and poor visibility.
The last remains to be recovered were found Oct. 28. The badly decomposed body of a female high school student was found in a restroom, a day before what would have been her 17th birthday. The discovery came 102 days after the next-most-recent discovery, leading some to conclude that the missing bodies had been carried away by currents and that none remained in the sunken ferry.
Last week, lawmakers passed a bill mandating a special investigation of the sinking. The bill was the subject of months-long heated debate, as the ruling and opposition parties argued over how the committee would be selected and the limits of its authority.
Also passed was a bill to create a ministry that will oversee issues of national safety and coordinate responses to large-scale emergencies. The ministry will assume the responsibilities of the Coast Guard, which was disbanded after coming under fire for what was criticized as a slow and ineffective response to the sinking.
Lawyers representing the captain and crew had argued that the failure to rescue passengers was the Coast Guard’s fault and that the ship’s operator, Cheonghaejin Marine, should be held responsible for any safety violations. The chief executive of Cheonghaejin Marine, Kim Han-sik, is on trial separately on a manslaughter charge, facing a possible 15-year sentence.
But the prosecution cited a South Korean law, the Seafarers Act, that requires a captain to remain on board until the passengers and cargo have been safely removed. Prosecutors also contrasted the Sewol crew’s behavior with shipping industry best practices, whereby crew members remain on board a ship in distress to assist passengers onto lifeboats and rescue vessels.
For months after the sinking, citizens paid condolences at memorial altars throughout the country. Many affixed yellow ribbons to their clothing or tied them to trees and railings. The strips of fabric came to symbolize the collective grief of the nation.
The South Korean parliament announced Tuesday that it would begin discussions on providing financial compensation to the families of those who died. Many of the parents and relatives spent months away from their jobs, and in South Korea it is customary for the government to provide compensation in cases of large-scale disasters.
But for the families of those who died, the verdict, and any plans for compensation, did little to immediately ease their pain. YTN television reported that the mother of one child who perished screamed at court officials outside the courthouse shortly after the verdicts were announced.
“Is this what justice has become in our country?” she said. “Are our children's lives really worth this little?”
Borowiec is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Julie Makinen in Beijing contributed to this report.