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[Newsmaker] Rescue firm blamed for favoritism, slow work

Undine Marine Industries Co., the company leading the search for the Sewol’s missing, is turning up more controversy than results.

Undine has been leading the search for the Sewol’s missing, which now stands at 90, since April 17, the day after the ship sank off the coast of Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province.

Undine, however, has not only taken the center role in the painfully slow search but also in the growing controversies stemming from the tragedy that has so far generated a confirmed death toll of 212.
A diver boards Undine Marine Industries Co.’s barge off the coast of Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province, Tuesday. (Yonhap)
A diver boards Undine Marine Industries Co.’s barge off the coast of Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province, Tuesday. (Yonhap)

From the outset, allegations emerged that the company was receiving favorable treatment from the Coast Guard.

Civilian divers who volunteered for the search have also claimed that Undine attempted to take credit for their work.

According to civilian divers, Undine attempted to take credit for finding the first bodies to be discovered inside the Sewol and made an indirect threat to Coast Guard officials.

The divers told a local television network that high-level Undine officials said there were “too many higher-ups who will be hurt” if the bodies were recovered by volunteer divers.

Other volunteers are said to have been given job offers from Undine on condition that all related developments would be kept secret.

“This (search operation) has been given to us, and if we lose such things (recovering bodies) to others, I will be very disappointed,” volunteer diver Kang Dae-young said in a television interview quoting an Undine official. Kang also claimed that the Undine official requested search and recovery operations to be slowed down as he stood to sustain losses.

For its part, the company refuted all allegations, saying that it was focused only on the task at hand and that it would answer all questions once the situation surrounding the Sewol is resolved.

As the company attempts damage control, more fuel was added to the seething controversy on Wednesday with the Ministry of National Defense confirming that Undine was given priority over military divers.

According to Defense Ministry documents provided to Rep. Jin Sung-joon of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, the Coast Guard held back military divers to give Undine employees priority.

The document obtained by Jin showed that the Coast Guard prevented Navy divers from searching the Sewol despite having installed guide lines ahead of civilian divers.

According to the Defense Ministry, 19 Underwater Demolition Team and Ship Salvage Unit troops preparing to dive on April 17 were prevented from carrying out search operations.

“The Coast Guard prevented access to the site to give the civilian company (Undine) priority,” the ministry said in the document submitted to Jin. The document went on to say that the military accepted the Coast Guard’s directions in order to avoid causing “mutual interference.”

By Choi He-suk (
Korea Herald daum