South Korea's Sewol ferry disaster: Could it happen again?

Divers enter the water next to buoys marking the site of the submerged Sewol ferry near Jindo, South Korea, on April 21, 2014.
Divers enter the water next to buoys marking the site of the submerged Sewol ferry near Jindo, South Korea, on April 21, 2014.PHOTO: NYTIMES

JEJU, SOUTH KOREA (NYTIMES) - The promises came too late for the overloaded South Korean ferry, too late for the 250 students who drowned when it capsized on a school trip to a resort island.

All South Koreans could do was watch, heartbroken, the desperate videos from students sending last messages to their families as cold waves filled the ship. "Mom, Dad, I love you," one boy said in a video recovered from a phone.

But as a stunned nation took stock after the Sewol ferry disaster, people hoped it might not be too late to make sure this could never happen again: Officials had promised to finally take on a national culture that often puts profit over people.

Now, five years later, the ships ferrying thousands of South Korean commuters and travellers every day are still vulnerable to cheating and corruption. The New York Times visited two major ports, interviewed inspectors and coast guard officials, and spoke with maritime safety experts. This is what we found:

- Officials have worked hard to improve maritime safety, adopting new regulations and tougher penalties for people who violate them.

- But rule breaking appears widespread, with the government making limited headway against an industry in which safety is still often an afterthought.

- Crucial new measures to prevent ships from being overloaded are often sidestepped. The coast guard has uncovered cheating at almost every step of the cargo-weighing process.

- The government itself has declined to require changes at ports that experts say would dramatically increase safety by making it easier to catch cargo cheaters. Officials rejected the fixes as too costly.

 
 
 
 

- One maritime safety expert put it bluntly: "They haven't learned the lessons of the Sewol disaster after all the sadness and national trauma."

THE SEWOL SANK BECAUSE OF GREED

Renovations by the owner, and approved by regulators, made the ferry more profitable, but also dangerous. Extra berths made the ship so top-heavy that dockworkers said it would lurch badly when loading or unloading.

On the day the ferry sank, April 16, 2014, shippers had loaded twice the legal limit of cargo on its decks. Not only did the ship's crew lie about the total weight of its cargo, crew members failed to properly secure the cars, trucks and shipping containers to the decks. Some were tied down with ropes, instead of chains - or not secured at all.

Corrupt regulators, bought off by fancy dinners and travel, allowed the unsafe ship to sail. Had inspectors taken the time to board the vessel, it would have been hard to miss how grossly overburdened it was.

The cheating at every level created a perfect storm. When the Sewol made a sharp turn while fighting a strong current, the badly balanced ferry began to keel over. The poorly secured cargo started sliding across the decks, forcing the ferry further onto its side.

The ship soon capsized. More than 300 people were killed. Only 172 passengers made it off alive.

The disaster enraged, and traumatised, the nation. The country's leaders vowed to write new laws and rules to improve safety at sea, and to do battle with the culture of corruption that courses through the country's companies and safety agencies.

"I will make sure that all this sacrifice was not for nothing by removing the layer after layer of corruption that has accumulated over the years, and by making South Korea a safe country," vowed the president at the time, Park Geun-hye.

IMPROVEMENTS, BUT WRONGDOING GOES ON

The government lived up to its promises to pass new laws and rules that cover everything from how thorough inspections need to be, to the maximum age of ferries, to the training of crews to better deal with emergencies on the high seas.

The penalties for lawbreakers have been stiffened and prosecutors have cracked down hard when violators are caught.

What has proved much harder to fix is the pursuit of profit at all cost and an often casual disregard for safety - problems that have long been blamed in South Korea not only for shipping disasters but also for building collapses and hospital fires.

Maritime investigators continue to find pervasive wrongdoing, especially by the employees of cargo-handling companies and by truck drivers who lie about the weight of their cargo.

"We have made a lot of changes and improvement since the Sewol incident," said Park Han-seon, who coordinates research on maritime safety at the Korea Maritime Institute. "But what the country still needs is a safety culture where business managers put safety before profit."

And while the government has taken aim at business practices, victims' families have accused it of failing to set its sights on officials' own culpability in the ferry disaster. The families are angry that senior government officials did not end up in jail, especially for the botched rescue effort.

The coast guard was both late to the scene and woefully unprepared to help when it finally got there.

In April, the families called on authorities to investigate former top officials, accusing them of failing to order an evacuation of the passengers in the early hours of the disaster and over accusations that they conspired to impede investigations.

"We know who killed our children, but we are not able to punish them," said Jang Hoon, who lost his 17-year-old son.

Jang believes the country will become safer only if top officials realise they can be held criminally accountable for their actions.

CHEATING AT EVERY STEP

If the Sewol had not been so grossly overloaded, experts say it most likely would have made it to its destination, Jeju Island, off the southern coast.

As part of the flurry of new regulations, truckers are now required to have their cargo weighed at government-licenced stations. The problem is that some shippers and truck drivers have already found ways to evade this safeguard.

On Jeju Island, officials have found cheating at almost every step in the cargo-weighing process. Last year, the coast guard covertly watched trucks going into Jeju Harbour for two weeks. It found 21 drivers who it said illegally added more cargo near the harbour without returning to a weigh station in order to save time and money.

But the truckers were not the only ones flouting the law.

The coast guard also found that officials at two government-licenced weighing stations had issued certificates to at least four drivers without even weighing their trucks. And in 2017, coast guard investigators found that a cargo-handling company official had fabricated more than 1,400 weight certificates.

Despite the alarming findings, coast guard officials said there was no ongoing investigation into weight cheating on Jeju Island ferries. The agency, they said, does not have enough investigators.

The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries told The Times it was fighting the cheating by conducting random checks on trucks going onto ships in major ports. Last year, the ministry reported, the spot checks of 117 randomly selected trucks using mobile measuring equipment found no cheaters.

But the limited scale of such checks, along with the coast guard's troubling findings on Jeju, raise disturbing questions on how widespread, and dangerous, cargo weight-cheating might be.

IMPROVED INSPECTIONS, IGNORED RECOMMENDATIONS

In the wake of the Sewol disaster, it became clear that South Korea faced two major problems with inspectors.

One was a glaring conflict of interest: Inspectors were paid by the Korea Shipping Association, a lobbying group. Inspectors reported feeling pressured to turn a blind eye to safety problems or risk being re-assigned to distant ports.

In addition, the rules governing inspections were so lax that many inspectors simply eyeballed ships from shore to see if they were overloaded, a practice that left them vulnerable to being fooled. That is what happened with the Sewol: Most of its ballast water - which would have helped balance the ship - had been drained so that it would not appear to sit too low in the water to inspectors on shore.

Inspectors now work for a company overseen by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and are required to board ferries to check their seaworthiness. During recent visits to Jeju and Incheon, a port west of Seoul, The Times witnessed inspectors doing just that, sometimes when they did not know they were being observed.

"Before the Sewol incident, we were not required by law to visit the ship for inspection," said Jeong Han-gu, who supervises inspectors at that port in Incheon. "Even if we wanted to, we often didn't have the manpower or the time to do it."

The government has also increased the number of inspectors to 142 from 73, and inspectors say they feel much freer to cite shippers for safety violations. In 2015, the Oceans Ministry added another layer of safety by dispatching maritime supervisors to ports to oversee the on-site inspectors.

But on the critical issue of cargo cheating, even an army of honest inspectors would be hamstrung by the fact that they do not have equipment to independently weigh trucks right before loading.

In the months after the Sewol's sinking, safety experts advised installing that equipment at the docks. But the government dismissed the recommendation because of the cost, lack of space and the fear of slowing down loading.

And despite the improvements that have been made, corruption still appears to be leading to deaths on South Korean ships.

Three years after the Sewol sank, a South Korean-owned cargo ship, the Stellar Daisy, went down after reporting flooding in a cargo compartment. Only two of its 24 sailors were saved. Prosecutors recently indicted six officials of the ship operator, saying they ignored severe corrosion to save their company money. They also indicted an official with the government-licensed inspection company that performed a structural check, saying he did not adequately inspect the ship.

What company did the inspection? The same one that gave the risky renovations on the Sewol passing grades.

THE TAKEAWAY:

Changing laws is a lot easier than changing culture.