South Korea ferry latest: First the tragedy, now the anger and the shame

As South Korea struggles to grasp the scale of its ferry disaster, the captain has been arrested and a guilt-racked teacher has taken his life, writes Donald Kirk in Seoul

The saga of the sunken Korean ferry the Sewol, from the moment the passengers heard loud bumps on Wednesday morning and the vessel began to tilt, captures the essence of a society driven by the need for success but caught up by disasters blamed on overconfidence and carelessness.

Underlying the national mood, triumph mingles with guilt and outrage, and issues of face and pride contribute to the rise and fall of public anger. Thus it was that the vice-principal of Danwon High School in the Seoul suburb of Ansan hanged himself yesterday, tortured for having been rescued from the ship, leaving behind more than 300 of his students, most of whom never made it off the vessel.

“Please put all the blame on me,” Kang Min-kyu, wrote in a suicide note. “I cannot go on living when the lives of so many students are not known. I was the one who carried on this school trip. Please burn my body and shred it over the scene of the accident.”

After he was rescued Mr Kang, 52, repeatedly said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” while refusing medical attention for diabetes that had led to his collapse – and rescue by helicopter – as he was trying to help students get off.

The sense of guilt runs deep in a society in which profuse apologies are as commonplace as roars of victory. The suicide rate of young Koreans – students who fail to get into top universities, entertainers whose popularity falters, middle-aged workers who lose their jobs – is a national problem.

In the sinking of the Sewol, a 6,300-ton vessel plying the route from Incheon down the west coast of the Korean peninsula to the scenic island of Jeju, immediate blame was cast upon the shipping company, on the captain of the ship and his crew and on authorities for failing to act swiftly enough.


The guilt is all the more profound considering how laconic the initial communications were between the ship and harbour control in Jeju, two hours away across open water. The message from the Sewol was matter of fact: “Currently the body of the ship has listed to the left.”

Then, in a telling clue as to what may have caused the ship to tilt ever faster as the minutes ticked by, the message added, “The containers have listed as well.” Could it be that the thuds that shook the ship were from the shifting containers – or had the ship, moving off course, hit a submerged rock?

There was no immediate alarm as harbour control advised: “Please wear life jackets and prepare as the people might have to abandon ship.”

The next words gave the first clues of disaster. “It’s hard for people to move,” said the message, to which Jeju responded, “Yes, got it.”

In fact, reports after the ship began to list indicate its 475 passengers and crew – including 325 high school students and 15 teachers – were all getting off in orderly fashion. A teacher assured anxious parents at Ansan that their sons and daughters were safe.

Then, suddenly, reports of a successful evacuation ceased. First the Korean Coast Guard acknowledged an error in counting those taken off the boat. In the confusion, some people had been counted two or three times.

If only 179 people were off the boat, what was happening to the rest?

Lee Joon-seok, (centre) the captain of the sunken ferry (AP)

By the time the public had absorbed that question, the ship was on its side. Minutes later, more than two hours after those initial loud thuds, it capsized and slipped beneath the surface within sight of a rocky island three kilometres away and 20 kilometres south of the small port of Jindo.

As the extent of the disaster dawned on a stunned nation, questions focused on the captain and the crew. Where were they, and what had they done to speed up the evacuation?

First reports said the captain had ordered everyone to “abandon ship,” to jump in the water if none of the small craft now swarming the area were available.

Then came word that crew members had told many of the passengers, notably the students, accustomed to stern discipline in their classrooms, to stay where they were, on crowded corridors, possibly even return to their cabins, while awaiting their turn to get off. Most complied.

That advice epitomised the apparent carelessness with which the shipping company Chonghaejin had reportedly done nothing to train the crew about evacuation. According to reports, there were not even enough life vests to go around, and the crew had no idea that the best advice was to get everybody on deck as soon as possible, ready to leap. As for a safety drill for passengers, it was alleged that this had not been carried out.

The heaviest weight of guilt, it became clear a day or so later, lay upon the captain Lee Joon-seok. He had not been on the bridge when the ship, with the third mate at the wheel, jerked suddenly, whether after hitting a rock or to avoid one is unclear.

Lee’s worst offense, though, was to violate the cardinal rule of staying with the ship until all passengers were saved. He had been winched off by helicopter – among the lucky few plucked high and dry before the ship began to list too far for aerial rescue.

Captain Lee and two crew members have been arrested. The captain faces charges including negligence and violation of maritime law.

A woman confronts police chief Choi Sang Han (Getty Images)

The captain, of course, came out with profuse apologies, but what about the shipping company?

A stream of 180 trucks and cars poured onto the ship at Incheon along with 1,000 cargo containers, lashed to the lowest deck by ropes and cables? How much did they weigh and how securely were they held? The company seems not to have saved the records – but also issued the ritual apology.

Korean shipping companies are supplying cranes to lift the ship from the depths. Teams of divers are trying to work their way inside, slowed down by swift currents, high winds and poor visibility. Many more divers look for bodies – 28 discovered so far.

It’s as though the Korean people were rallying around their lost brothers and sisters, compensating for the awful face-losing disaster. In tragedy, Koreans can take pride in their coming together to recover from a disaster that is also a national humiliation.

Transcript:  'It's listing right now'

This is part of the transcript released by the Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries of the conversation between Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Centre (VTS) on Jeju Island and the ‘Sewol’, which sank on Wednesday.


‘Sewol’: Harbour affairs Jeju, do you have reception of the ‘Sewol’?

Jeju VTS: Yes, ‘Sewol’, this is harbour affairs Jeju.

‘Sewol’: Please notify the coastguard. Our ship is in danger. It’s listing right now.


Jeju VTS: Where’s your ship? Yes, got it. We will notify the coastguard.

‘Sewol’: The ship has listed a lot. Can’t move. Please come quickly.

‘Sewol’: We’re next to Byeongpung Island.

Jeju VTS: Yes, we got it.


Jeju VTS: ‘Sewol’, this is harbour affairs Jeju. Do you have reception?


‘Sewol’: Harbour affairs Jeju, this is ‘Sewol’

Jeju VTS: ‘Sewol’, this is Harbour affairs Jeju. Channel 21, please.


Jeju VTS: What’s the current situation?

‘Sewol’: The body of the ship has listed to the left. The containers have listed as well.

Jeju VTS: OK. Any loss of human life or injuries?

‘Sewol’: It’s impossible to check right now. The body of the ship has tilted, and it’s impossible to move.

Jeju VTS: Yes, OK. Please wear life jackets and prepare as the people might have to abandon ship.

‘Sewol’: It’s hard for people to move.

Jeju VTS: Yes, got it.


‘Sewol’: Harbour affairs Jeju, do you have reception of ‘Sewol’?

Jeju VTS: Yes, this is harbour affairs Jeju, ‘Sewol’.

‘Sewol’: What’s going on with the coastguard?

Jeju VTS: Yes, we have notified the coastguard. Currently we are calling Jindo VTS and Wando VTS. Please hold for a moment.