by STEVE HAN
The company that owned and operated the South Korean ferry Sewol that capsized in April was also responsible for five maritime accidents between 2003 and 2011, including one involving one of its ships crashing into an oil tanker, the Associated Press has reported. In addition, three of those accidents occurred within a 12-month span. However, even with such a serious accident record as this, the Chonghaejin Marine Company failed to make recommended safety reforms.
Instead, Chonghaejin was given relatively lenient punishments. Its previous five accidents—none of which led to fatalities—prompted two one-month suspensions for the sailors, three verbal warnings to captains, one verbal warning to the company and a fine of 7.5 million won ($7,400). The largest fine that can be issued in ferry-safety cases is just 30 million won ($29,400).
The Associated Press quoted experts who stated that Chonghaejin’s negligence in reforming its safety standards should have been enough for regulators to suspend or even revoke the ferry operator’s license, but that obviously never happened. Instead, Chonghaejin was allowed to expand its operation, including by adding the Sewol, a ship it purchased from Japan and renovated to accommodate more passengers.
When Chonghaejin bought the Sewol, the inspectors lowered the ferry’s capacity for cargo, but port documents later showed that the company ignored the restrictions and overloaded the vessel, AP reported.
After the tragic sinking on April 26, killing more than 300 people, the company’s license was finally revoked.
Notably, this revocation has led to a major problem for residents and shipping companies who relied on Chonghaejin’s Incheon-Jeju ferries. After all, ferry companies in Korea tend to enjoy virtual monopolies, said the AP story, and experts say this is a major reason that violations often don’t lead to license suspension or loss.
“Canceling a license causes huge difficulties for island residents, so instead we impose fines and urge companies to take cautions,” Kwon Jun-young, a director at the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, was quoted as saying in the AP story.