Acquittals in Sewol ferry disaster raise doubts about state accountability for Itaewon crush

Posted on : 2023-11-03 16:52 KST Modified on : 2023-11-03 16:52 KST
The Supreme Court confirmed lower court rulings that Coast Guard leadership was not responsible for the disastrous sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014
Participants in a memorial mass by the group Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice put on on Oct 30 for the one-year anniversary of the deadly Itaewon crowd crush disaster hold candles and signs reading “Oct. 29 Itaewon disaster, We will remember.” (Yonhap)
Participants in a memorial mass by the group Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice put on on Oct 30 for the one-year anniversary of the deadly Itaewon crowd crush disaster hold candles and signs reading “Oct. 29 Itaewon disaster, We will remember.” (Yonhap)

South Korea’s Supreme Court acquitted the former head of the country’s Coast Guard and others of charges of causing the deaths of over 300 passengers on the Sewol ferry by failing to properly command and control on-site rescue services. The court confirmed the verdict based on the logic that the disaster was “difficult to foresee.”

The court saw that as it was difficult to grasp the situation onboard the Sewol ferry at the time of its sinking, it would have been difficult for Coast Guard leadership to ascertain that the passengers were waiting inside the ship to be rescued.

With the top brass of the police, including Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA) chief Kim Kwang-ho, who is under investigation by prosecutors for the inadequate response to last year’s crowd crush in Itaewon, having also argued that the Halloween disaster was “unforeseeable,” this latest ruling by the Supreme Court raises concerns about whether those in the police and government who failed to prevent the deadly events in Itaewon will face punishment.

The court’s acquittal of the former leaders of the Coast Guard, including Kim Suk-kyoon, the commissioner general at the time, on Thursday was based on two main grounds.

First, the court determined that the captain of the Sewol ferry escaped without properly informing the Coast Guard that he had not given the passengers an order to abandon ship, making it difficult for the guard’s leadership to recognize the likelihood of large-scale casualties.

Second, the court found that the rescue forces, including Coast Guard Vessel 123 that had been dispatched to the scene, did not report the specifics of the situation in the water, meaning that it was possible to for Coast Guard leadership to mistakenly believe that adequate rescue efforts were being carried out based on the information provided to them.

In effect, the higher the rank and the less savvy at reading live situations in the field, the lighter the criminal liability for professional negligence. In fact, a total of 12 Coast Guard officers were indicted for the failure to rescue the Sewol ferry, but the only one found guilty was Kim Kyung-il, the field commander who first arrived at the site of the sinking ferry as captain of Coast Guard Vessel 123.

The command tower — authorities who determine the direction of safety management and rescue — have been pardoned, leaving only the field commander legally liable.

The prosecution argued that this case called for the application of the principle of “negligent co-perpetration,” contending that the former head of the Coast Guard and others should be punished on the same charges that Kim Kyung-il was convicted of, but the court rejected this argument.

The principle of negligent co-perpetration states that even if the relevant parties did not collude knowingly, if the damage was caused by the combined negligence of several people, all should be recognized as accomplices.

In the cases of the 1994 collapse of the Seongsu Bridge and the 1995 Sampoong Department Store collapse, construction company officials, government officials, and others were convicted as co-perpetrators of criminally negligent homicide and bodily injury.

The police’s special inspection team investigating the Itaewon disaster has previously stated that it has been conducting its probe on the basis of the principle of negligent co-perpetration from the start. However, in the case of the Sewol ferry disaster, the court ruled that each implicated individual should be held accountable separately, not jointly, due to differing degrees of negligence.

There are concerns that the court’s ruling that the Coast Guard top brass cannot be considered a co-perpetrator could influence the decision of prosecutors investigating police leadership in connection with the disastrous crowd crush in Itaewon that left 159 dead.

Despite prosecutors taking over the cases of Kim Kwang-ho and other persons of interest in the police in January, they still have not decided on whether to indict, citing supplementary investigations as the reasoning behind the delay.

Shortly after the police’s special investigation team handed over the case, prosecutors raided Kim Kwang-ho’s office twice in January and called him in for questioning twice in April, but there has been little indication of an indictment on the horizon.

“There are many legal issues that need to be reviewed when deciding whether the SMPA chief can be held criminally liable when the Yongsan police chief was the field officer at the time,” explained an official at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.

The prosecution added that even in overseas cases, such as the stampede at the Akashi fireworks festival in Japan and the crowd crush case in Hillsborough, England, it is difficult to find examples of commanders being found criminally liable.

Given prosecutors’ stance and the Supreme Court’s acquittal of the top brass in the Sewol ferry case, there is a strong possibility that the prosecution will move to not prosecute police leadership in the Itaewon case.

So far, only seven police and other officials have been charged with death and injury by occupational or gross negligence for their role in the Itaewon disaster: Lee Im-jae, the former chief of the Yongsan Police Station; Song Byung-joo, the former head of the police’s emergency hotline in Yongsan District; and Park Hee-young, the mayor of Yongsan District. No higher-up authorities have been charged at this point.

The logic of the Sewol ferry ruling suggests that it may be difficult to punish even Lee, who has already been indicted, let alone those in charge, such as National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun and Kim Kwang-ho. Lee denies the charges, saying that he “was not informed of the tragedy in time,” and that “the radio transmission was muffled.”

“In a large-scale disaster situation, the role of the command tower, which collects information from each rescue site, makes judgments, and directs and coordinates, is crucial, but the court accepted the excuse of being ill-informed as a basis for immunity,” said Lee Jung-il, who heads a civic task force for the Sewol ferry disaster organized by Minbyun-Lawyers for a Democratic Society, while speaking to the Hankyoreh.

“There is also a possibility that this ruling will serve as a kind of guideline for cases such as the Itaewon disaster, allowing those in command to escape punishment,” he added.

By Lee Ji-hye, staff reporter

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