Had a newspaper, a broadcaster or a single investigative reporter taken a close look at the murky world of the coastal shipping business earlier, things would have been a little different and the ferry Sewol could still be afloat. Here is the story of how the fourth estate missed a great chance to contribute to a societal cleanup:
A reporter surnamed Pak of a major Seoul-based daily is invited aboard for the maiden voyage of a large coastal liner between Incheon and Jejudo Island by its owner in August last year. He accepts the invitation with the consent of his desk chief, who asks him to pay particular attention to the ship’s safety measures.
The chief has a reason. He has been informed that the ferry, Korea’s largest coastal liner, was built in Japan and had already operated for 18 years before being sold to a Korean shipping firm in 2012. In several months of refurbishment, passenger compartments were added on the top level of the 6,800-ton ship, making it 50 centimeters higher and 200 tons heavier. Under eased regulations, this ferry could sail the lucrative route between Korea’s main western port and the tourist haven for 10 more years.
On board, reporter Pak moves about from the hull to the bridge, asking the crew about the ship and checking the locations and quantities of lifejackets, life rafts and other equipment for emergency use. On the freight deck, he is uneasy as trucks continue boarding until close to the departure time. Passenger cars should be tied to the floor with ropes, and trucks and containers with chains, but the tying work is done perfunctorily by a few deckhands instead of specially hired personnel.
The ship arrives at Jeju Port after an overnight cruise at a speed of over 20 knots, and the reporter returns to his Seoul office by air. Throughout the journey, he is bothered by a tip he received just before boarding the ferry: that its real owner is the mysterious leader of a religious group who was in jail for a large-scale fraud in the 1990s.
Reporter Pak starts an investigative project to look into the management of the shipping firm and the safety of the nation’s coastal ferry service at a time when domestic maritime tourism is beginning to pick up. In a monthlong investigation, he strikes a journalistic goldmine. The shipping firms, he finds, are grossly negligent in terms of safety, protected by a triangular collusion between marine businesses, regulators and administrative authorities. His appalling findings:
1. Despite Korea’s reputation for being the world’s No. 1 shipbuilder, local shipping firms have been buying obsolete Japanese coastal liners at cheap prices, and “remodeling” them to increase passenger capacity in disregard of stability requirements.
2. The official extension in 2008 of the maximum life of coastal liners from 25 to 30 years is generally worsening the situation as many old vessels are now operating along the nation’s three coasts.
3. The Korean Register of Shipping (KR) sets detailed freight weight limits for individual vessels, but they are not passed on to port inspectors, who only visually examine the draft waterline from outside the ship (often using a telescope) instead of checking the actual cargo weight. Skippers sometimes drain ballast water to allow for heavier loading at the expense of the ship’s stability.
4. The KR has a record of passing 99.99 percent of the ships it has inspected.
5. Eight of the KR’s 11 present and former heads were retired senior officials of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs. Ten of the last 12 chairmen of the Korea Shippers Cooperative, which has 2,100 members, were from the MMA. Some senior positions at the KSC have been given to retired officers of the Maritime Police.
6. The Maritime Police is under the control of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries while the National Police is under the Ministry of Public Safety and Administration. Emergency communication is hampered as the sea and land police use different radio channels; they rely on the convenience of cellphones in coastal operations these days.
7. The owner of the Incheon-Jeju ferry hired a 67-year-old retired seaman as its “temporary” skipper, paying him 2.7 million won per month to keep operating costs low. Chonghaejin Marine Co. suffered a business loss of 700 million won last year, but its two largest shareholders collected 1.4 billion won from the company in that period.
8. The real owner of Chonghaejin, identified as Yoo Byung-eon, directly or indirectly controls about 50 affiliated firms in Korea and abroad, traveling around the world as a photo artist named “Ahae.” He served four years in prison from 1991 for embezzling contributions from the followers of a religious sect founded by his father-in-law. Earlier in the late 1980s, he was investigated in connection with the suicide pact of 32 people who belonged to the group but was not charged.
To our deep remorse, the above facts were uncovered and published not before but after the Sewol sank in the sea off Jindo Island on the morning of April 16. In reality, there was no intrepid reporter named Pak working for a major Seoul daily. No reporter or broadcaster smelled the evil ghosts lurking in Korea’s shipping circles or anticipated the sacrifice of innocent passengers, young students, newlyweds and foreign tourists who loved to feel the cool breezes on the deck of the liner on a voyage to the resort island.
Had these irregularities been made public in a front-page series by a daily newspaper to drive our law enforcement authorities to take tough actions to stop the precarious operation of the Sewol, the tragedy could have been avoided. If its ballast was full to balance the top-heavy vessel, the ship would not have capsized so easily, even if an inexperienced 26-year-old pilot was at the wheel. If only we were all less complacent, less greedy and a little more alert about things that could go wrong …
By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ― Ed.
* Pursuant to an order by the Press Arbitration Commission, we have been asked to publish the following statement from the Evangelical Baptist Church (EBC).
Evangelical Baptist Church (“EBC,” the “Salvation Group”*) and Mr. Yoo Byung-eun Related Corrections and Official Statement by EBC
After the April 16, 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy, the media published a flood of indiscriminate articles regarding the EBC (also known as Guwonpa* in Korean
) and Mr. Yoo Byung-eun. Due to the immense volume of articles, it is impossible to correct and counter every single one. Therefore, in agreement with the EBC and the surviving family of Mr. Yoo Byung-eun, we are publishing the following combined corrections and Official Statement by EBC.
* This label, which is translated as the Salvation Group, has been applied disparagingly to the Evangelical Baptist Church
1. In regards to the claims that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun was the owner of the Sewol ferry vessel and the owner and Chief Executive Officer of Chonghaejin Marine Ltd (“Chonghaejin”) and its affiliated companies
The majority of the media reported that, as the owner of the Sewol ferry, Mr. Yoo Byung-eun directly managed Chonghaejin and its affiliated companies and that he used operating funds for personal purposes. However, Mr. Yoo retired from his executive management position in 1997. He did not own any shares in the noted companies, nor had he managed operations, nor used the operating funds for personal reasons. He was not the owner of the Sewol ferry, nor the Chief Executive Officer of Chonghaejin. As such, he had not provided any directives in regards to the overloading of the Sewol ferry or its renovation (e.g. expansion of the cabins and cargo area).
2. In regards to the reports of Mr. Yoo Byung-eun’s accumulation of illicit funds and lobbying of lawmakers
Although some media outlets reported that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun had established favorable relationships by paying bribes to politicians, Korean Prosecutors’ Office verified last October that reports of such bribery activity were false. We hereby correct all articles pertaining to this matter.
3. In regards to the allegations of Mr. Yoo Byung-eun’s asset holdings in other people’s names and misappropriation of offerings made to the EBC
The majority of the media reported that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun was a wealthy billionaire who owned real estate properties, including Geumsuwon, both in Korea and abroad under other people’s names and that he diverted the tithes and offerings made to the EBC to an illicit fund and expanded his businesses.
The EBC has confirmed that reports of his wealth incorrectly included real estate properties owned by farming associations, which had been established by church members. Thus, these reported properties were not held by Mr. Yoo Byung-eun in another person’s name, but are owned by the noted farming associations.
Additionally, Mr. Yoo did not embezzle from the EBC nor did he expand his businesses by diverting tithes or offerings of the pertaining church and its members into an illicit fund.
4. In regards to the reports related to Mr. Yoo Byung-eun’s position within the EBC
The EBC has stated that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun was not a religious sect leader. Although he was ordained as a pastor in the 1970s by missionaries at the Far East Broadcasting Company, he did not serve as a pastor. There is no pastor in the EBC, since it is a congregation of laymen.
It was also verified that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun did not participate in the official
process to register EBC as a church in 1981, nor had he been revered as a religious sect leader or been made into a God-like figure by the pertaining church or its members.
5. In regards to reports that the EBC is a cult and that it has false doctrines
The majority of the media reported that the EBC is a religious cult and that it preaches doctrines that are not consistent with Christianity. There are certain churches in Korea that call the EBC a cult, solely based on differences between their and the EBC’s doctrines. However, the EBC has affirmed its belief in the Bible, the Trinity, Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit, His birth, death, and resurrection. The EBC does not worship a particular individual as a religious sect leader or preach any doctrine that contradicts the Bible.
6. In regards to reports that Lee Yong-wook, a senior Coast Guard official, and the Sewol ferry crew, including Captain Lee Jun-seok, are members of the EBC, and that the EBC managed Chonghaejin
It was verified that the captain and the crew members who abandoned the ship at the time of the Sewol ferry accident are not members of the EBC. Only two people have been confirmed as members of the EBC: the late Jeong Hyun-seon, who died while evacuating passengers and thus was designated a national hero, and another person, who had been rescuing passengers and was himself later rescued in an unconscious state. It has also been verified that the EBC does not own any shares of Chonghaejin and that it did not engage in its management. Furthermore, the EBC has stated that Lee Yong-wook, a senior Coast Guard official, has not attended the EBC for the past 15 years.
7. In regards to reports of Mr. Yoo Byung-eun’s attempt to flee the country by ship, reports of his seeking asylum and reports of his possession of firearms
The majority of the media reported that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun attempted to flee the country by ship, that he requested asylum in several countries but was rejected, and that he possessed firearms to protect himself. The prosecutors hastily announced without confirming the facts that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun attempted to seek asylum. However, two months later on August 18, the prosecutors revised their statement noting that “upon investigation into the identity of the caller, a person with no relation to the Salvation Group had placed a prank call.” In addition, there was no evidence of any attempt by Mr. Yoo to flee the country. It has also been confirmed that the firearms alleged to be in his possession were collectibles. Furthermore, not only were they collectibles that could not be operated they were also not in his possession while he was fleeing.
8. In regards to reports on allegations about the EBC’s and Mr. Yoo Byung-eun’s links to the Odaeyang incident and their relationship with the Fifth Republic of Korea
Some news articles created the impression that the EBC and Mr. Yoo Byung-eun were behind the Odaeyang mass suicide incident. Some also reported that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun had been able to rapidly grow the Semo Group in the 1980s (e.g. securing the business rights to operate the Han River Ferry Cruise) by using a connection with Mr. Chun Kyung-hwan and a close relationship with the former President Chun Doo-hwan’s Fifth Republic of Korea. However, the Odaeyang mass suicide incident was thoroughly investigated by the prosecution and the police three times—in 1987, 1989, and 1991. All three investigations concluded that the EBC and Mr. Yoo Byung-eun had no connection to the incident. Also, neither Mr. Yoo Byung-eun nor the EBC had any collusive ties with the Fifth Republic of Korea. All of this was verified in the official document issued from the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office on May 21, 2014.
9. In regards to reports alleging that Mr. Yoo Byung-eun held photography exhibitions at the world’s top museums by donating funds and that he coerced purchases of his artwork
The artwork of Ahae (Mr. Yoo Byung-eun) was examined and authorized for exhibitions at renowned museums and exhibition sites in the United States and Europe by their screening committees. The exhibitions were unrelated to donations, and it was confirmed that there was no causal relationship between Ahae’s donation history and the exhibitions. Moreover, Mr. Yoo’s photography exhibitions were authorized by the committees after the directors of the respective museums had acknowledged the artistic value of Ahae’s works and subsequently proposed hosting the exhibitions. It has been confirmed that the exhibitions were not a result of Mr. Yoo’s patronage or donation. Additionally, the above museums have verified that an exhibition can never be authorized unless the artistic value of an artist’s works is recognized by the screening committee, irrespective of the amount of money an artist donates.
Additionally, it was reported that Mr. Yoo coerced Chonghaejin and its affiliates to purchase his photos at inflated prices. However, this has been confirmed to be false.
Lastly, the Evangelical Baptist Church has released the following statement to the media:
“We sincerely request of the press to serve the public’s right to know with objective and balanced reporting, guarding against biased arguments from its interviewees, all the while fulfilling its duty and responsibility to create no victims from such reporting.
We ask the press to reflect upon its manner of reporting on the Sewol ferry accident. Without waiting for the truth to be revealed through the completion of the investigative and judicial process, the reporting largely focused on releasing exclusive and sensational news reports, which led to misleading the public and essentially conducting a trial in the court of public opinion. We also ask the press to avoid compromising the democratic principles of a constitutional state and to prudently take strict precautions against those forces that aim to take advantage of this period of heartbreak for this nation in order to advance their own position and authority.”