By Hyun Lee
The Sewol ferry, which capsized and killed 304 people in April 2014, was carrying cargo bound for the controversial Jeju naval base at the time of its sinking, reported The Hankyoreh. New revelations uncovered by the Special Sewol Investigative Commission (hereafter the Commission) confirm that the ship was carrying 410 tons of iron bars, 278 tons of which were headed for the construction site of the naval base on Jeju Island.
The construction of the Jeju naval base, now complete, was fiercely opposed by residents of Gangjeong Village for cutting off their access to the sea and displacing fisherfolk from their livelihoods, as well as for its disastrous environmental impact. The construction was halted numerous times by the villagers and supporters, who led a seven year campaign oppose the base.
The official cause of the sinking of the Sewol has largely been attributed to overloading of improperly-secured cargo on board the ship. “The results of our exhaustive investigation is that the Sewol was carrying a total of 2,215 tons of cargo at the time of the tragedy even though the maximum amount of cargo it was authorized to carry was 987 tons, which means it was overloaded by 1,228 tons,” the Commission said on June 27. In other words, the iron bars, mostly for use in the construction of the Jeju naval base, accounted for approximately one third of the excess cargo on board the Sewol.
The new disclosure is raising allegations that the Sewol set out to sea despite inclement weather conditions in order to meet the construction schedule for the base. Around 9 pm on April 15, 2014, the Sewol ferry departed Incheon Harbor while other ships remained at the port to wait for better weather conditions.
The disclosure also sheds a new light on the covert relationship suspected between the Sewol operators and South Korea‘s National Intelligence Service (NIS). Fact-finding hearings held by the Commission have revealed that on the day of the Sewol sinking, employees of Chonghaejin Marine, which operated the Sewol, were in constant communication with the NIS via text and phone. They also found that the Sewol was the only ship among 17 coastal ferries in the 1,000-ton class or above that was obligated to report to the NIS in the event of an accident. And NIS agents were listed as contacts during the vessel’s purchase back in 2012.
The disclosure about the ferry’s Jeju naval base-bound cargo raises new questions about pontential NIS involvement in the reckless decision to overload the vessel and set out to sea in dicey weather conditions.
“From its site selection to completion, the construction of the Jeju naval base was an irrational project fraught with expedients and illegalities,” said the Gangjeong Village Association in a joint statement with the Jeju Island Task Force to Oppose the Jeju Naval Base and the National Task Force to Oppose the Jeju Naval Base. “That this monstrous project could have also had a hand in the Sewol tragedy burdens our hearts with a weight as heavy as 410 tons of iron. What the naval base took from us may be more than just the Gangjeong village community, its natural environment and peace in Northeast Asia. We demand a thorough investigation into the truth behind the Sewol tragedy, including the connection between the Jeju naval base construction and the routine practice of overloading the Sewol ferry.”
Blue House Manipulation of Media Coverage
The Commission also released damning audio recordings of phone conversations that show Saenuri Party lawmaker Lee Jung-hyun, former Blue House Secretary of Public Affairs at the time of the Sewol sinking, putting pressure on then-KBS Bureau Chief Kim Shi-gon about KBS’ coverage of the government’s search and rescue operation in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.
Recordings of phone conversations that took place on April 21 and April 30, 2014 suggest that Lee explicitly intervened in the way that KBS, a major television network, reported the news. In one instance, Lee can be heard ordering Kim to re-record a broadcast scheduled to air the following day.
“This is a situation of national crisis. The direct responsibility of the tragedy lies with the ship’s crew members, so if you want to criticize the coast guard, wait until the rescue operation is over,” Lee said in the first phone conversation on April 21, 2014.
In the second conversation on April 30, 2014, he said, “In relation to the coast guard’s handling of the diving operation, choose your words well to make the coast guard seem not responsible.” He added, “Of all days, the president watched KBS News today. One more time please, record it one more time. Help me just this once.”
In response to this revelation, the Union of Media Workers released a statement demanding punishment for those responsible and an apology from President Park.
Park Geun-hye Shuts Down Sewol Investigation
As questions mount surrounding the cause of the Sewol tragedy and the government’s handling of the aftermath, the Park Geun-hye government, it seems, is intent on shutting down the fact-finding probe. The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries sent a notice to the Commission terminating its investigative mandate on June 30.
On June 27, the police forcibly took down a makeshift protest tent put up by bereaved family members of the Sewol tragedy who had been staging a sit-in protest outside the Seoul Central Government Complex since June 25 to demand an extension for the investigation. The police also arrested four of the family members. The following day on June 28, the police blocked the family members from participating in a press conference outside the National Assembly. Approximately 80 bereaved family members and supporters arrived at the National Assembly building to join a press conference to urge lawmakers to allow the Commission to continue its investigation until the Sewol’s hull is raised and a thorough examination is concluded. As soon as they started taking out their picket signs, however, the police quickly surrounded them and confiscated their signs, then prevented the group from crossing the street to join the press conference. Family members and supporters reportedly sustained injuries in a physical clash with the police.
“If President Park thinks she can silence us by shutting down the Special Investigative Commission, she is seriously mistaken,” said members of the April 16 Sewol Family Association. The Sewol Special Law, they said, allows the Commission to continue its investigative activities through February 2017. They also announced plans to submit a petition to the National Assembly to request the appointment of a special prosecutor.
By Hyun Lee
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