The special committee probing the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking began its two-day hearing in Seoul on Thursday, despite the government’s decision not to cooperate, as controversy persists over its legitimacy.
The hearing opened at Kim Jae-jung Presidential Library and Museum in Mapo-gu, with most of the key government-related witnesses absent.
The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries has said the committee does not have legal grounds to hold any type of hearing, as its tenure was completed as of June 30 based on the special act on the Sewol disaster.
Most of the key witnesses called in by the committee were absent, including officials of the maritime police and the Navy that had been in charge of the rescue operation.
A total of 304 people, many of whom were high school students on a field trip, perished in South Korea’s worst maritime disaster in April 2014. Although some officials have been convicted, questions remain over the systematic fallout that led to the tragedy. They include the alleged negligence of the government in managing overloaded vessels and failed rescue operations.
Members of the Sewol Special Committee hold its third hearing at the Kim Jae-jung Presidential Library and Museum in Mapo-gu, Seoul, Thursday. (Yonhap)
The committee has been seeking to investigate officials of the ship’s then operator Chonghaejin Marine Co., other high-ranking officials of the Korean Coast Guard and ship-inspecting organization Korean Register of Shipping, among others.
It has also requested the appearance of ruling Saenuri Party Chairman Rep. Lee Jung-hyun, who is accused of attempting to censor a news report on the tragedy while he was serving as the senior presidential secretary at the time of the accident. He did not attend.
On the first day of the hearing, witnesses, including survivors and employees of the ferry, gave their testimonies, suggesting rescue missions had been insufficient.
Ryu Hee-in, a member of the committee, raised questions over some discrepancies found between the survivors’ testimonies and records of a digital video recorder that keeps track of the CCTV footage that had been handled by the authorities.
The committee also raised allegations that Chonghaejin Marine Co. may have attempted to maximize its target sales by adding on the amount of transported construction materials.
The Sewol committee found that the 6,835-ton ferry carried 2,215 tons of cargo, more than double its cargo limit of 987 tons at the time of its sinking.
The hearing was held amid an ongoing hunger strike by family members of the victims that began last month in protest against the government’s decision to dissolve the committee.
The government disbanded the Sewol Special Committee, citing the Sewol Special Act that took effect on Jan. 1, 2015. The act allowed the committee to conduct a probe for 18 months with another three months to report on their findings.
The committee comprised members recommended by the rival parties, the bereaved families, the Supreme Court and the Korean Bar Association.
Families of the victims and civic groups claim the committee was prematurely disbanded as its official launch date should be considered to be when the organization was allocated budget and manpower. They argue the committee has eight months more to operate.
Despite the government refusing to cooperate, the committee has said it will bring in government officials from Cheong Wa Dae, the prosecution and the Maritime Ministry to question alleged peddling of influence in local media and the government’s lukewarm efforts to save lives.