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Korean ferry deaths in Hungary touch raw nerve in South Korea, 5 years after Sewol tragedy that killed 304 teens

PortandTerminal.com, June 1, 2019

The sinking last week of a tourist ferry carrying South Korean tourists in Hungary has touched a raw nerve in South Korea. Many are still deeply traumatized by a 2014 ferry sinking that killed 304 people, most of whom were young high school students and friends on a field trip together.

April 16, 2014

Five years ago on April 16, 2014, the passenger/Ro-Ro ferry Sewol was en route from Incheon towards Jeju in South Korea. The South Korean ferry was carrying 476 people, mostly secondary school students from Danwon High School. They were on a field trip to Jeju island.

The students were understandably excited to be going on the trip together. Nicknamed the Hawaii of South Korea, Jeju was declared one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature in a 2011 global poll. Situated 90km off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, Jeju is a popular destination with holidaymakers, hikers and honeymooners in the region.

The Sewol never made it though. It listed violently, capsized and finally sank – after two hours of sending a distress signal at 9 am.

As the lucky few are rescued, a doomed passenger looks out a ship window desperately

In total, 304 passengers and crew members died in the disaster. More than half of the survivors, 170 of them, were rescued by private fishing boats and commercial vessels, not by the nation’s coast guard. 

Many corpses were found with broken fingers and wrists from trying to claw their way out

A relative of the victims weeps during a ceremony on the eve of the first anniversary of the ferry sinking at a port in Jindo, South Korea (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

The tragedy caused nationwide grief and fury, with authorities blaming untimely rescue efforts and other negligence. In the end, the captain of the Sewol was sentenced to life in prison for murder. Fourteen other crew members were given prison sentences of between 18 months to 12 years. A vice president of the ferry line that owned the Sewol committed suicide.

Inside the sinking ship

The horror of the Sewol sinking were the videos, text messages and photos sent by the doomed teens trapped in the ship as it sank. Many parents were able to communicate with their children for thirty minutes before the ship sank. How can any parent be prepared for that horror?

Mom, I’m sending you this now because I’m afraid I might not be able to say it later. I love you

The world saw first-hand the helpless terror of young students whose only fault was obeying the orders of the vessel’s captain and crew who had ordered them to stay put.

Many of the bodies that were later found had bruising associated with hypothermia but showed no signs of drowning. The horrific implication being that many children remained alive for some time after the ferry sank in air pockets and died of exposure as they waited desperately for help that never came.

What went so wrong?

The sinking of the Sewol was blamed on a combination of illegal redesigns, the overloading of cargo, the inexperience of the crew member steering the vessel, and lax government regulations. And cowardice.

Prosecutors discovered the Sewol was carrying twice its legal limit of cargo on its voyage, having dumped most of the ballast water that would have helped stabilize it. The ferry operators got away with it because inspectors had limited themselves to monitoring many ships from shore; so long as vessels did not sit too low in the water, the inspectors raised no questions. The overloading helped doom the ferry when it made a sharp turn in dangerous currents.

The sinking of MV Sewol resulted in widespread social and political reaction within South Korea. Many criticized the actions of the captain and most of the crew.


Lee Joon-Seok was a coward when 304 students needed a hero.

A video captured the captain Lee Joon-Seok abandoning the sinking ship after having changed out of his uniform beforehand

Abandoning the Sewol was like a doctor deserting sick and dying people in hospital.

Judge during sentencing statement of Lee Joon-Seok

Lee Joon-Seok, the captain of the sunken South Korean ferry Sewol has been sentenced to life in prison for murder (AP Photo/Yonhap, Hyung Min-woo)


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