Ahn Young-joon / AP

In Sewol ferry case, Korean values and politics also on trial

As captain and 14 crew members of sunken ferry face charges in court, public demands government accountability

Two parallel tribunals have commenced in an unremarkable, blond-wood-paneled courtroom in Gwangju, South Korea. The first is the criminal trial of Capt. Lee Joon-seok and 14 crew members of the Sewol ferry, which capsized on April 16, killing nearly 300 people, most of them teenagers. The second proceeding is longer-term, more spectral in nature — a public indictment of the nation’s long-standing regulatory and political corruption.

On Tuesday, as 11 of the 15 defendants arrived to enter pretrial pleas of not guilty (the remaining four will appear next week), grieving family members and protesters surrounded the courthouse, wearing commemorative yellow ribbons, yelling curses and holding signs reading “You’re worse than animals!” and “The children’s souls are watching.” This scrutiny was not limited to the defendants, but extended to the fugitive ferry owner, the judiciary, public agencies and conservative President Park Geun-hye in equal measure. South Korea’s Twitterverse underscored this sentiment: “After the captain’s trial, Park Geun-hye should go on trial. Isn’t it obvious that she’s putting all the blame on the captain?” wrote Kwon Yo-seop, @anarchy9786.

Representatives of the Sewol victims have accused the government of numerous betrayals: a delayed, incompetent search-and-rescue effort; failure to apprehend Yoo Byung-eun, a religious leader and owner of the vessel’s operator, the Chonghaejin company (6,000 police officers raided his religious compound Wednesday); and a corrupt regulatory system that allowed the Sewol to carry far too much cargo and has permitted deadly safety problems to fester for decades.

“The Sewol incident has brought to light some of the structural failings of safety and regulatory agencies in Korea,” said Jeong-Ho Roh, director of the Center for Korean Legal Studies at Columbia Law School. “In the ’90s, there was that notion in Korea of quick economic development ... but now, at this point in time, it’s quite clear that that mentality of quick growth has got to stop and adopting standards that are international, that are safe, has to be the foremost priority.” The 1995 collapse of Seoul’s Sampoong Department Store, which killed over 500 people and injured nearly 1,000, still resonates with Koreans as a cautionary tale of rapid development and greed.

In a tearful speech delivered more than a month after the Sewol tragedy, President Park apologized to the Korean people and vowed to reorganize the government. Corruption and lax enforcement of regulations, she acknowledged, were the direct result of cozy relations between corporations and the state. With a score of 55 on a scale of 100, South Korea ranks among the middle range of states when it comes to perceived public-sector corruption, according to Transparency International.

While it had been widely expected that Park’s Saenuri party would fare poorly in local and provincial elections held June 4, results were mixed. And on the same day the Sewol trial began, in an apparent reassertion of her political will, she announced a new prime minister: a former newspaper editor known for his conservative views. 

Insofar as the ferry tragedy has become a universal lens for South Korean politics, all eyes are on the trial in Gwangju. Public sentiment, of course, has already entered a guilty verdict, raising the question of whether the defendants — some charged with homicide — will enjoy the kind of fair trial that offers, according to theorist René Girard, a “curative” substitute for mob violence.

The captain of the ferry has retained private counsel, and six public defenders have been appointed to the other 14 defendants, who have similar legal interests. It will be a bench trial, meaning that a judge will preside and rule on their guilt or innocence. Juries are not traditionally part of the South Korean legal system, though a limited system of “consultative juries” has been in place since 2007.

Political reforms in Korea will likely unfurl at an even slower pace than the trial. Perhaps fittingly, the name of the ferry, Sewol, translates roughly to “the passage of time.”

“Even though Korea has progressed quite rapidly, we have those leftover creeping problems like the revolving door,” said Columbia’s Roh. “I suspect that this particular incident will make us revisit the fundamental problems inherent in the way the government runs. In that regard, I think there might be some positive outcomes.”

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