Families of S. Korea ferry dead win payout

The South Korean government is liable for the botched rescue of more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren, who drowned when their overloaded ferry sank, a court ruled yesterday.

A South Korean court yesterday acknowledged for the first time the government’s liability for the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry, which killed 304 people, mainly school children, and ordered it to compensate victims’ families.

A botched rescue and the toll of children in one of Asia’s most technically advanced economies shocked and angered South Koreans, and the administration of former President Park Geun-hye was the focus of much of the ire.

The ferry was structurally unsound, overloaded and traveling too fast on a turn when it capsized off the southwest coast on April 16, 2014, investigators have said, casting the nation into deep grief for months.

The Seoul Central District Court ordered that every family receive 200 million won (US$177,000) for each victim and additional compensation ranging from 5 million to 80 million won for each family member.

“The victims died while waiting for rescue within the ship, without knowing about the detailed situation,” Judge Lee Sang-hyun said in a court document.

“But after more than four years, the dispute is still going on over who is responsible for the sinking and compensation.”

It was not immediately clear if the government and the ferry operator would appeal against the decision.

A group of 354 members of the bereaved families of 118 students had filed a lawsuit in 2015 against the government and the ferry operator, Chonghaejin Marine, after rejecting a compensation deal that closed off the option of legal action.

Chonghaejin Marine overloaded the Sewol and its crew abandoned the stricken ferry after telling passengers to remain in their cabins, the court document said.

The Coast Guard also failed to maintain control of the ship and rescue the passengers, it added.

More than two-thirds of the 476 passengers on board the Sewol were students on a school trip, many of whom died trapped in the vessel following the crew’s directive.

Yesterday’s verdict was “only the beginning” of the families’ fight for the truth, said Jeon Myung-sun, who leads an association of victims’ families.

“We’re not satisfied,” said Jeon. “The court did not accept our argument that the presidential office violated the law, as the control tower for national disasters. We will raise it again in an appeal.”

Yoo Kyung-keun, another member of the group, struggled to hold back tears in contrasting the ferry victims’ treatment with that of a young Thai soccer team and their coach rescued last week from a cave where they had been trapped for days.

“It was the first time when I envied the Thai people and I will continue to envy them,” Yoo told reporters outside the court after the ruling.

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