Blame for the South Korean ferry sinking is swirling around the captain

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. The agony continues in South Korea for the families of those missing after last week's ferry disaster. About 220 passengers, mostly high school students, are still classified as missing people. The ferry's captain, Lee Jun-seok, is in jail, along with two of his officers. They are accused of abandoning their sinking ship without regard for the passenger's fate. South Korean President Park Geun-Hye has called their actions, "tantamount to murder." Reporter Jason Strother thinks the president may be trying to distance herself from the tragedy.

Jason Strother: It's really strange that a president would declare her feelings about an ongoing investigation. It kind of raises the question "Can this be a fair trial if Captain Lee Jun-seok and his crew do wind up in court?" I think a lot of people here, while they do see that something went wrong onboard the Sewol that day, they still hold their president accountable for what they consider to be foot dragging by the administration on rescuing all the victims onboard.

Werman: What does the law in Korea actually state as far as a sea captain's duties to their ship?

Strother: South Korea's signatory to some international maritime standards. It does stipulate that a captain must ensure the safety of his passengers and if it's found out that his actions or perhaps inactions lead to passenger's deaths, he could be punished and it looks like at least five years in prison is what he could receive if found guilty.

Werman: I don't want to come off as sounding cold here but a ship going down in the way it's been described, listing and then sinking very fast, has anyone said "Hey, it was everyone for themselves, we understand why the captain tried to get off,"?

Strother: I think in Korea people expect the head of a company, the head of a country, the head of a ship to take full responsibility for their actions and the people underneath them. It's, some could say, a Confucian sort of way of looking at responsibility. But the fact that Captain Lee was one of the first to be rescued when the ship was sinking, he and his crew got into one of the only lifeboats that was used as the boat was capsizing, did not help his case.

Werman: I've got to say Jason, we've been hearing so many different accounts as to when this captain left the boat, who he had given responsibilities to, whether they were qualified, what do we know for sure at this point about the crew on the boat and whether they in fact did everything in their capacity to save the passengers?

Strother: Marco, transcripts came out over the weekend of radio communication between the crew and controllers on land. It really painted a picture of confusion. It seemed very clear that the crew did not know when or how to evacuate passengers. They seemed to want to want the forces on land to dispatch rescue vessels as quick as possible and they weren't going to give evacuation orders until that happens. Evidently, Captain Lee, he's told reporters that he was worried that if passengers jumped off the ship that they'd be swept away in the current, so that's why he did not give an evacuation order. Transcripts also reveal that the intercom system on the boat was not completely functioning, so even if he did give an evacuation order, people wouldn't have heard it. The investigation continues, we're still not even sure why this boat began to capsize.

Werman: This must be dominating all news coverages, completely blanketing everything there right now. What is it like?

Strother: It's on everybody's minds here. The nation is in a state of mourning. Over the weekend, sporting events were cancelled, KPOP concerts were cancelled, there were reports that even Samsung asked its employees to abstain from drinking and golfing over the weekend out of respect to the victims. Everyone is South Korea has ridden one of these ferries one time or another. I've been on a ferry operated by Chung Hae Jin marine company whose boat sank. They're very common to get from island to island here and I don't think people have ever really considered their safety concerns until now.

Werman: Reporter Jason Strother in Seoul. Thanks for the update, Jason. We appreciate it.

Strother: Any time Marco, thank you.