Life Sentence for Sewol's Captain

Capsize of the ferry Sewol (file photo)

Published Nov 12, 2015 6:44 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of South Korea upheld an appeals court's decision to sentence Captain Lee Jun-seok to life in prison for the crime of “murder through willful negligence.” This is the first time a person has been convicted of the charge in a maritime case.

Captain Lee was the master of the ferry Sewol when it capsized in 2014, killing over 300 people on board.

In announcing its decision, the court said that “it is fair to say that the captain knowingly and totally abandoned his role when he left the ship fully aware that passengers would drown.”

A lower court had previously cleared Captain Lee of the principal charge, but on appeal he was convicted and sentenced to life. The Supreme Court's ruling on his case brings the Sewol crew's trials to a close.

Fourteen lower ranking crewmembers have been charged and found guilty of lesser offenses, and have received between two and 12 year jail sentences.

Survivors of the Sewol disaster said that shipboard intercom announcements at the time of the accident told passengers to stay in their cabins and await help. Manwhile, the captain and crew departed the ferry in lifeboats and were the first aboard Coast Guard vessels on scene.

Most of the victims were high school students on a field trip, and their deaths sparked a wave of outrage and mourning. In the wake of the disaster, some parents of the victims refused to eat; the vice principal of the students' school took his own life, saying that he could not live when so many had died. Volunteers and celebrities signed on to a campaign of recognition, its symbol a yellow ribbon.

Accident investigators said that the 7,000 dwt Sewol was carrying twice its permitted cargo tonnage at the time of its capsize, and that crew had emptied ballast water in order to compensate for the overloading. The resulting reduction of the ship’s stability was found to be a key factor in the disaster.

Inquiries by law enforcement found that the ferry's operators were aware of routine overloading aboard the vessel, and that regulators did not take action to correct this practice. Dozens of officials and company officers have also been prosecuted in relation to the case.