| The Supreme Prosecutors` Office and the Korea Coast Guard on Friday announced the interim results of their investigation into the sinking of the ferry Sewol off the south coast after setting up their joint investigation headquarters.
Investigators said that the captain of the ill-fated ferry gave the wheel to a third mate before the vessel began sinking, adding that further investigation was needed to determine if the ferry`s sudden turn just before the sinking was the cause of the accident. The investigators also noted that they will not limit the subject of scope of their probe, vowing to thoroughly see if there were any problems during the rescue process after the accident as well as suspicions already raised.
Cheonghaejin Marine Co., the operator of the Sewol, is a successor to Semo Marine Co., which went bankrupt in 1997 after the 1990 sinking of its cruise boat on the Han River in Seoul. The largest shareholder of Semo let the company go bankrupt, and set up Cheonghaejin under his son`s name to resume operations. It is necessary to see if there were any illegal activities during the process.
The investigators should see how the company modified the ferry after purchasing it from Japan and whether the ferry fixed freight as required by regulations. As the ferry is believed to have capsized after leaning to one side, experts raise the possibility that the vessel`s center of gravity was changed during the process of the modification process and that the freight on board was not fixed.
The fact that the captain and crew members` outrageous responses after the sinking caused the number of victims to rise indicates that the company had not properly conducted emergency drills. Under law, passenger vessels are required to conduct emergency evacuation drills every 10 days. The captain who caused the accident, the crew who failed to protect passengers and the company should be given stern punishment.
The loose operation of the ferry carrying 475 passengers on board also suggests how messy the government was in supervising shipping companies. Investigation should be conducted to see how the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and the coast guard gave licenses to and inspected ships and the authorities examined the ship operator`s emergency evacuation and early response drills. Had the coast guard officers who rushed to the scene after receiving a report of the sinking played their role of a control tower properly, more lives could have been saved.
The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, which was newly created under the Park Geun-hye administration, had trouble in the initial stages due to controversies over the appointment of its first minister, Yoon Jin-sook. The Ministry of Security and Public Administration had a vacuum in its leadership, as its minister quit the post to run in the upcoming local elections. The families of the missing people issued a statement Friday, saying that they could not trust the government in handling the situation and asking the public to help. The government should take its responsibility gravely for causing the distrust and confusion.
The government must leave no stones unturned in investigating what went wrong, from senior government officials to part-time workers on the ferry, even if the ugly truth about the reality in Korea`s safety management is laid bare. If we fail to correct the problem this time again, such a tragedy can happen again any time.