South Korean oil spill victims’ cautionary tale

A dull gray fog hangs over this deserted beach town, reflecting the now-gloomy psyche of a once-bustling fishing and tourist center.

Park Kyu-woong stands on an empty boardwalk, pointing to the source of an unstoppable force he says took the town’s life away, prompting a rash of suicides by residents who gave up hope that help would ever come.

“Out there,” he says grimly, motioning to the sea, “eight miles from land. On Dec. 7, 2007.”

South Korean oil spill: A map accompanying an article in Saturday’s Section A about the effects of a 2007 oil spill in South Korea misidentified the Yellow Sea as the East China Sea. —

On that day, Taean became the victim of South Korea’s worst oil spill, when a runaway barge struck a supertanker moored offshore.

The collision dumped 11,000 tons of crude oil — a third of the amount in the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and a mere fraction of what the broken BP rig has spewed into the Gulf of Mexico.

The spill spread tar across 120 miles of pristine tourist beaches and fouled a national maritime park, coating seabirds, defiling the local sea catch and ruining 1,000 saltwater farms cultivating oysters, abalone and seaweed.

Seven thousand miles from the Gulf of Mexico’s shores, this tiny town 90 miles southwest of Seoul provides a possible scenario for fishermen and others along the coasts of states such as Alabama and Louisiana who are wondering what the future holds.

Two and a half years after the accident, Taean is a ghost town. Tourism has dropped 86% and has just begun to bounce back. As scientists predict the ecosystem will take at least 20 years to heal, livelihoods that took generations to develop have been cut short. Today, only 30% of the area’s nearly 5,000 fishermen are back at work. Many others are scrambling for government loans to see them through the crisis.

Even though BP has already promised a $20-billion compensation package for the gulf, grim-faced Taean residents offer some solemn advice: Take nothing for granted.

In their case, despite lawsuits and protests against the government and the barge operator — Samsung Heavy Industries, part of one of the nation’s richest business conglomerates — beleaguered fishermen here have yet to receive compensation.

“Not a dime has been paid,” said Park, leader of an association of 4,700 local fishermen affected by the spill.

The task of compensating 126,000 victims of Taean’s oil spill has become mired in the complex payment guidelines set by international maritime treaties and South Korean commercial law, advocates say.

For years, Samsung and the owners of the Hong Kong-registered tanker, Hebei Spirit — along with a host of insurance companies — have haggled over their compensation responsibilities.

Standing on the sidelines is the South Korean government, which many say has failed to streamline payment of the $2.8 billion sought in compensation.

“Everyone’s dragging their feet,” said Chang Ki-wook, a lawyer representing Taean residents. “The more time that passes, they figure, the lower victim-compensation demands will go.”

Samsung officials acknowledge that the process has taken time but insist they must abide by the law.

“We understand the frustration,” spokesman Kim Boo-kyung said. “But you can’t confuse the law with emotion. The legal process must go on.”

The company has offered an $81-million “donation” to help repair the local ecosystem, an amount Kim says should not be confused with compensation.

Chang called the gesture a ploy for the moral high ground. “This is Samsung’s so-called act of social responsibility — but we don’t want their sympathy,” he said. “We want the compensation they owe to victims of an oil spill that they caused.”

South Korean government officials say their hands are tied.

Shin Man-cheol, an official for the Land and Maritime Ministry, said the main insurer, the International Oil Pollution Insurance Compensation Fund, is analyzing more than 100,000 claims.

“We need to wait for that investigation,” he said. “It’s not that we don’t want to speed up the process. We’re trying our best.”

Meanwhile, Taean is falling apart. Bordered on three sides by ocean, with 32 beaches and verdant rice paddies that reach toward the coast, the town was once a weekend tourist oasis.

Now no one comes here. Dig a shallow hole at the beach, residents say, and it soon fills with black sludge.

After the mishap, the government banned Taean’s spoiled catch from being sold in the Seoul metropolitan area, forcing many fishermen and restaurants to close their businesses.

That’s when people began killing themselves.

Four Taean residents — including Sung Jung-dae, a former spokesman for local fishermen — took their lives, each denouncing the sluggish compensation process.

“He was drinking a lot. In the last month, he became convinced that the situation had become hopeless,” said Park, a former journalist who took over as head of the fishermen’s group.

Tensions have turned residents against one another. An insurance firm’s compensation payments to people in the tourism and restaurant industry made fishermen and others envious. “Neighbors and former friends are now enemies,” Park said.

But few here have paid a higher price than Choi Myung-hwa. For two decades, she and husband Ji Chang-hwan ran seafood restaurants here, always believing that the sea would provide.

Then the spill struck. The next morning, the couple saw a once-beautiful beach ravaged by oil.

Ji turned to his wife. “Taean is over,” he told her. “We won’t survive.”

Later, at the funeral of a fisherman who had killed himself, Ji heard a rumor about government benefits to the families of suicide victims.

That night, his wife, recalled, he posed a question. “He wondered if I could make it on my own if he went away to find work,” said Choi, 55, her hands reddened from kitchen work. “I told him I could manage, as long as he provided some money.”

Days later, at a rally for spill victims, Ji did the unthinkable: He walked onto a stage where leaders were shaving their heads in protest and doused his head with paint thinner.

Then, as his wife and hundreds of friends and neighbors watched in horror, he set himself on fire.

The rumor of government benefits was false. Ji took his life in vain.

“He always buried his emotions, and I guess he couldn’t deal with his grief,” said Choi, her eyes tearing. “But I’d like to think he took his life on behalf of this town, to speed up this process.”

Nowadays, sympathetic residents patronize Choi’s restaurant as often as possible. After the lunch rush one recent afternoon, the weary widow sat down and considered the future.

One day soon, she hopes the companies will stop bickering and pay Taean residents for their losses. “People say it’s going to get better and I want to believe them,” she said.

“But for now, we’re still suffering.”