Listen to this article
The 15 surviving crew members of the Sewol ferry sat with their heads bowed in court last week, as they received lengthy jail sentences for their role in a disaster presumed to have cost more than 300 lives.
On the same day, the government announced that the capsized ship would be raised from the seabed, with nine passengers still missing, dashing early hopes that all bodies could be recovered first.
The twin developments might seem to mark the beginning of the end of South Korea’s national grieving process at the loss on April 16 of the Sewol, one of its worst peacetime tragedies. But the circumstances of the accident, as well as the response to it, have exposed challenges and problems that will stay with the country in the years ahead.
The scale of the Sewol disaster, argue some political commentators, has also fuelled public impatience with the political squabbling that has hindered efforts at reform. “Korean politicians are falling behind what the electorate are thinking,” he says Shim Jae-hoon, a political commentator. “There’s a sense that the parliamentary system in Korea needs to upgrade itself.”
The opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy has fiercely criticised the government over the sinking, contributing to a political stand-off that saw the parliament fail to pass any legislation between early May and late September.
Mr Shim says this strategy appears to have backfired against an opposition party widely seen as disorganised. It suffered a heavy defeat at by-elections in July. Ms Park’s approval rating has also declined since the accident, but at 46 per cent it is well higher than that of her two predecessors at this point in their terms, according to the polling company Gallup.
A long-awaited investigative report by South Korea’s Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, published last month, established that it was entirely avoidable, stemming mostly from egregious mismanagement and flouting of regulations at Chonghaejin Marine, operator of the ferry.
The amount ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine spent on safety training last year
The ship lost balance, it emerged, largely because it was carrying twice the maximum amount of cargo allowed by regulations – a limit it had breached more than 100 times in the previous 12 months. A further factor was its top-heavy structure after the addition of a new upper deck, which regulators had waved through. Civil groups argued that this reflected a common problem: cosy relationships between many South Korean companies and their regulators may also have contributed to one of the worst industrial safety records in the advanced world.
Scrutiny of Chonghaejin, meanwhile, has turned up a seamy tale of corporate malfeasance with which citizens are wearily familiar in South Korea, where the chairmen of many top business groups have retained their posts despite convictions for fraud or tax evasion.
Chonghaejin’s management, the authorities alleged, systematically flouted laws and safety standards to squeeze profit out of a hazardous fleet of ships, while embezzling company funds for the benefit of the controlling Yoo family. Yoo Byeong-eon, believed to have controlled the business through a complex system of holding companies, became South Korea’s most wanted man until his corpse was found this summer in an orchard.
Since Yoo’s death, the fiercest blame for the disaster has fallen on the surviving crew, who fled the vessel while passengers stayed below deck in line with their instructions. These survivors received sentences ranging from five to 36 years last week.
More sympathetic observers argue that their panicked actions reflected a dire lack of training: Chonghaejin spent only Won 541,000 ($494) on safety training last year, according to its audit report. Prosecutors, however, dismissed such pleas, pushing for the ship’s captain to be executed for murder.
That charge was in line with remarks by President Park Geun-hye, who repeatedly accused the crew of “murderous acts” while the investigation was ongoing. The comments were widely seen as prejudicial, fuelling suspicions that Ms Park was trying to deflect criticism of the government.
South Korean media have attacked the government for supposedly contributing to the scale of the disaster through an unco-ordinated rescue effort on the day of the disaster. Ms Park reacted furiously to rumours that she could not be reached for seven hours that day, which her office denies. Prosecutors were dispatched to check the systems of KakaoTalk, a popular mobile messaging service, and a Japanese journalist was indicted for libel.
Ms Park has also ordered measures designed to prevent a repeat of the tragedy – notably the establishment of a new centralised safety agency, which will controversially involve the dissolution of the national coastguard.