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A fair judgment

Esther Felden/ac
November 11, 2014

Lee Joon-seok has been given a jail sentence of 36 years, which may seem a bit too lenient to the family members of the victims. But the judgment is nevertheless a balanced one, writes DW's Esther Felden.

Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-seok (3rd R) sits with crew members at the start of the verdict proceedings in a court room in Gwangju November 11, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Ed Jones/Pool)
Image: Reuters

Captain of the doomed South Korean ferry has been found guilty of negligence but acquitted of the charge of homicide, which is probably a balanced and rational judgment. The judges have not succumbed to public pressure: public opinion in South Korea would not have been satisfied with any other judgment than the capital punishment. That is what the captain of the Sewol deserves for his inexcusable failure in the face of disaster, many will maintain.

The sinking of the ferry last April, which left more than 300 of the nearly 480 passengers dead, has traumatized South Korea. 250 of the victims were school children. It was a tragedy which shook the nation and led to something very akin to an identity crisis.

The questioning began soon after the tragedy: how could such a thing happen? The South Korean people, as a rule, are disciplined and well-behaved, but the sorrow and the horror has made them swing to the other extreme: of uncontrolled anger; anger at the government and their poor crisis management; anger against the greedy ship owner for whom profit has been more important than the security and well-being of the human beings in his charge – the vessel was overloaded when it capsized; and, naturally, anger at the man on the bridge of the doomed ferry: Lee Joon-seok, the captain. Lee became the central hate figure.

DW's Esther Felden
DW's Esther FeldenImage: DW/P. Henriksen

A scapegoat?

It is clear that Lee was responsible for a whole series of grave mistakes which were made on that fateful day. But clearly other factors played a role. An enquiry report published last July arrived at the conclusion that the inefficiency of the bureaucracy, the close nexus between the government and the private industry, as well as ubiquitous corruption - all these individual factors have also played their part in the tragedy.

President Park Geun-hye and her government have come under considerable political pressure for the way the government has tried to handle the whole affair. The president has had to apologize publicly more than once for major slip-ups in the course of the rescue operation. She has declared her intention of breaking up the coast guard – among other measures - and has promised to look into the unholy fraternity between the shipping companies and the regulatory authorities. She has also suggested the creation of an enquiry commission consisting of parliamentarians and shipping experts.

The political uproar has died down and the country has returned to normality – so far as that is possible. But Lee's trial, spread over months, has been emotionally charged from the beginning till the end, tearing open old wounds and delaying the healing process.

Rationality, not revenge

The captain of the Sewol has doubtless much to answer: he abandoned the ferry and its passengers in the face of an impending catastrophe. He saved himself, instead of helping the others. The captain and his crew are even supposed to have told the passengers to remain in their cabins and not to come crowding up to the deck. Further, the captain had let an inexperienced helmsman steer the ferry through a difficult passage fraught with dangers and obstacles. The behavior of the captain has been egoistic, negligent and irresponsible in the extreme, his actions cowardly and scandalous. Hence, it is only too understandable that he should be the object of collective anger and hatred.

Lee knew that he was leaving the passengers to their own fate, but it is also a fact that he did not personally kill them. As such, despite all his guilt, he cannot be treated as a murderer. The court obviously thought the same. Lee and the other crew members had not been aware of the consequences of their deed – the judgment said.

More than 300 families lost a daughter, a son, a brother, a sister or an uncle on April 16, 2014. Many of those who lost their lives might have been alive today had the captain and his crew acted in a different manner. Nothing can bring back those who have died – certainly no death sentence. It might seem reasonable to the family members to demand the ultimate punishment – but it would not have been right to impose that punishment in this case.

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