Ex-Korea Coast Guard chief, nine others acquitted over 2014 fatal ferry sinking

The wreckage of the Ro-Pax ferry Sewol at South Korea's Mokpo New Port in 2017 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Trainholic)

A South Korean court has acquitted the former head of the country’s coast guard and nine other individuals of charges of negligent homicide in the wake of a passenger vessel sinking that left over 300 people dead on April 16, 2014.

The Seoul Central District Court has cleared former Commissioner Kim Suk-kyoon and nine former and incumbent coast guard officials of any wrongdoing in relation to the coast guard’s response to the sinking of the Ro-Pax ferry Sewol off southwestern South Korea on the said date.

The ferry was en route to Jeju island with 476 passengers and crew when the sinking occurred. The incident claimed the lives of 299 passengers while two rescue divers and five firefighters were killed in a series of mishaps during the subsequent search and rescue (SAR) operation.

Prosecutors had earlier claimed Mr Kim and his senior officials’ failure to properly manage the SAR response to the incident resulted in the delayed deployment of coast guard assets, thus leading to further loss of life.

However, the court ruled in favour of the accused, stating that the senior coast guard leadership had no adequate information to order the evacuation of Sewol‘s passengers during the first few minutes of the vessel’s sinking. Further, Mr Kim and the other officers had no way of knowing that the passengers would be abandoned by the ferry’s crew.

Evidence presented in court revealed that Sewol‘s captain had sent out a radio message falsely claiming that an evacuation order had been given to the passengers. Survivors further testified that they were instead ordered by the crew to remain in their cabins even as the sinking became inevitable.

The crew left the ship despite the knowledge that the passengers were still on board, the survivors said.

Mr Kim and the nine other coast guard officials were indicted in February 2020 for their alleged mishandling of the SAR response. Sentences of five years’ imprisonment were earlier recommended for the accused if found guilty.

The former coast guard chief has apologised to the victims’ families but has continually maintained his innocence.

The prosecution meanwhile said that it will appeal the court’s decision.

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