Sewol ferry disaster: owner’s heirs must pay South Korean government US$146m

Park Chan-kyong

A South Korean court ruled on Friday that the children of the late owner of the Sewol ferry that sank in 2014, killing over 300 people, should reimburse the government for about US$146 million it incurred in handling the disaster.

The Seoul Central District Court ordered three children who inherited the assets of Yoo Byung-eun, head of ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine Co, to pay 170 billion won to the government, holding the late billionaire responsible for failing to prevent the tragedy.

The 6,800-tonne ship sank off the country’s southwestern coast in 2014, killing 304 people, mostly high school pupils on an excursion, in one of South Korea’s worst maritime disasters.

The sunken ferry Sewol is lifted from the water and transported back to land in 2017. Photo: AP

Yoo, then 73, was found dead in the wild in 2014 as he was being pursued by police for questioning on corruption allegations.

Thousands of police officers were mobilised to hunt down Yoo, who doubled as a religious leader.

Investigations concluded the disaster was the result of numerous human factors. The ferry was illegally redesigned to accommodate more passengers, the cargo hold was overloaded, and it was being controlled by inexperienced crew at the time of the accident.

Prosecutors argued that corruption and mismanagement in the company also led to poor safety standards.

South Korea court orders state compensate victims of 2014 ferry sinking

Yoo was “negligent in his duty to ensure the ship was being operated safely”, the court said.

It noted that he had approved the illegal redesign of the ferry and let company employees habitually overload the ship with cargo items that were not safely tied down to the floor by ropes.

Workers are seen on the shell of the Sewol at port in Mokpo, south of Seoul, in 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE

The Sewol sinking dealt a crushing blow to then president Park Geun Hye, who was ousted from power and jailed in 2017 following sweeping street protests over a massive corruption scandal.

Many people are still angry at the government’s flawed search-and-rescue operations at that time and alleged attempts to cover up the truth behind the disaster.

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