The chief of the operator of the sunken South Korean ferry and four employees appeared in court on Friday to enter pleas on charges that their negligence caused the April disaster that left more than 300 people dead or missing.
During a preliminary hearing at Gwangju District Court, Kim Han Sik, 71, CEO of Chonghaejin Marine Co., and four executives or managers at the operator faced a decidedly less hostile reception than the 15 crew members charged with negligence had at their hearing last week.
Furious family members of the dead heckled and screamed at the crew members throughout that hearing. The spectators Friday, many of whom were reporters, listened quietly as prosecutors read the indictment.
When Judge Lim Joung Youb asked if there were relatives of the victims present, no hands were raised. Prosecutors indicted the company officials for alleged professional negligence and violating a law on measures required for safe maritime navigation.
Chonghaejin is said to have continued to overload the ferry Sewol with cargo even though the company knew the ship’s redesign made it top heavy and unstable. By routinely overloading the Sewol with cargo, Chonghaejin made an extra US$3 million (NZ$3.44m) in profit in the past year, according to the indictment.
The Sewol sinking has caused widespread grief and fury here and has prompted South Korea to reassess its long history of disregarding safety as it pursued inclusion in the ranks of advanced countries. President Park Geun Hye has publicly apologised and reshuffled her cabinet.
All but one of 15 crew members responsible for navigating the ferry previously pleaded not guilty to charges linked to their alleged failure to protect passengers, who were mostly high school students on a school trip.
The crew members, including the captain, said through their lawyers that their employer was responsible for the ship’s sinking because sailors had no control over cargo. They said the coast guard was responsible for rescuing the passengers.
The Sewol, a 6825-ton car ferry purchased in Japan for US$7.8m in 2012, was redesigned to add cabins and create an exhibition room after its purchase, according to the indictment.
The ship became top heavy as a result of the rework, so the Korean Register of Shipping approved the ship on the condition that it substantially reduce its cargo limit. An inspector at the Korean Register of Shipping has been charged by prosecutors.
Prosecutors and police officials are still seeking to arrest Yoo Byung Eun, a fugitive billionaire businessman who founded the predecessors of Chonghaejin. The government is offering a $500,000 reward for tips about his whereabouts.
Yoo faces allegations of tax evasion, embezzlement and professional negligence. Officials suspect the sinking may have happened because Chonghaejin illicitly funnelled profits to his family and failed to spend enough money on safety and personnel.
In April, Yoo denied his involvement in day-to-day operations of Chonghaejin through a statement released by his representative. Authorities are offering US$100,000 for clues about his eldest son’s whereabouts, and one of his daughters was arrested in France late last month.
Meanwhile, 292 bodies have been recovered and 12 people are still missing from the ferry sinking, one of the most deadly peacetime disasters in South Korea.