How South Korea is fixing 'deep-rooted evils' that factored in ferry sinking
Relatives of passengers aboard the sunken Sewol ferry look toward the sea as they await news on their missing loved ones at a port in Jindo, South Korea, Tuesday, April 22, 2014. (AP / Ahn Young-joon)
Youkyung Lee, The Associated Press
Published Monday, May 5, 2014 4:36AM EDT
SEOUL, South Korea -- The South Korean government is scrambling to fix what the prime minister calls the "deep-rooted evils" that contributed to last month's ferry sinking, which left more than 300 people dead or missing.
As investigators probe cozy links between the shipping industry and its regulators, Seoul has promised new monitoring and regulations for domestic passenger ships, which are not governed by international rules. Here are the initial steps the Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries and other groups have taken:
Who's on board?
The ministry says all information about passengers will be processed electronically beginning in June, with similar changes for vehicles and cargo beginning in July. The measures are meant to fix a system that produced uncertainty about how many people were on the Sewol when it sank, and especially about the amount of cargo it was carrying.
Under the current system, passengers write down their names, genders, birthdays and contact numbers. Many people, including cargo truck drivers who use ferries on monthly passes, didn't bother filling them out. Authorities believe 476 people were on the Sewol when it sank, and only 174 of them are known to have survived.
Records about the Sewol's cargo, meanwhile, appear to have been inaccurate. A coast guard official said the captain reported 150 vehicles and 657 tons of cargo, but an official with the company that loaded the vessel's cargo said it was carrying much more: 3,608 tons.
The ministry said passengers' ID cards will be checked by officials from the ship's operator and ferry terminal, a measure that has often been skipped. Terminal operators will be ordered to better control ferry port entrances.
Local TV stations have shown long lines of passengers at Jeju terminal as coast guard officials check the ID cards of passengers. The report said the coast guard has increased the number of officials present at the port, but it's unclear whether that's a permanent measure. Currently, there's only one coast guard officer present at the Incheon terminal, and the officer's main tasks are anti-terrorism and enforcing safety.
Black boxes that record date, time, ship location, speed, direction, weather and communications on the bridge will be installed on domestic ferries. Currently, only international ferries and freight vessels more than 3,000 tons are required to have the device, also known as a voyage data recorder. If one had been installed on the Sewol, it could have helped investigators check ship operations against testimony from the crew.
Officials say new domestic ferries will install the devices and existing ferries will adopt the devices after reviewing technical issues.
The area off the country's southern coast where the accident occurred is known for its fast currents and for many small islands located close together, but unlike some other challenging marine areas, there is no speed limit for ships. Officials will review whether the narrow stretch of water where the Sewol sank should be designated as a special area where a speed limit is applied.
The ministry will submit a proposal to the National Assembly seeking revisions to ban any redesign of passenger ships aimed at adding more passengers.
Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd. redesigned the Sewol to add passenger space after purchasing it from Japanese owners in 2012. The redesign resulted in a deterioration of the ferry's stability, increasing its centre of gravity by half a meter, which means its top became heavier than before. The Korean Register of Shipping inspected the redesigned vessel and said it would have to carry much less cargo to safely operate, but the changes did not require approval from the ministry because the ferry's width, depth, height and function all remained the same.
The ministry said it plans more restrictions regarding how ships may be redesigned. Details are under discussion.
Safety inspections before departure
The Korean Shipping Association, which regulates and oversees departures and arrivals of domestic passenger ships, is a private group, unlike many of its counterparts in other countries.
The association gets paperwork from captains on crew, passengers and cargo, ensures that ships undertake safety measures such as evacuation drills and decides whether ships are safe to depart. Its biggest business, however, is selling insurance products to shipping companies and operators.
Since the Sewol disaster, the oceans ministry has been considering taking the job of overseeing passenger-ship safety away from the shipping association, ministry official Kwon Jun-young said. Kwon said they are discussing which agency or agencies should take on the job.