South Korea considers the death penalty for the man who shipwrecked a ferry

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Marco Werman: In a country where the death penalty hasn’t been used in almost 20 years, the fact that it’s being discussed in a case right now must mean the defendant did something that’s really upset a lot of people. That is, in fact, the case with Lee Joon-Seok. He was the captain of a South Korean ferry that sunk last April, killing more than 300 passengers. Most of the victims were high school students. The captain was among the first to leave the ferry, despite the fact the passengers were still onboard. Lee was indicted in May for homicide and now prosecutors are asking for the death penalty. Reporter Jason Strother in Seoul says the case has generated strong emotions.


Jason Strother: I think many of the families that lost their schoolchildren when the Sewol sank in April would want to see the captain hanged. However, like you mentioned, it’s been about 17 years since the last time South Korea put someone to death. The death penalty in South Korea has a very troubled legacy. It was used against political enemies during the years of the dictatorship here, and that’s why in 1998 Kim Dae-Jung, when he became president, a former prisoner on death row himself, put a moratorium on the death penalty.


Werman: What is it about this case that is increasing the appetite for using the death penalty? Why this man, why this case?


Strother: This case is such a sensational case, it’s an exceptional case. The captain of the Sewol ferry, Lee Joon-Seok, he was initially vilified as this man who was one of the first off the boats. There was talk that once he was rescued while the passengers were going under, he was on the shore taking out his wallet, drying off his money. Of course, he has said in court that he is not a murderer, that he did not intend to have all these people die. But he’s been the main focal point of a lot of the anger channeled at the accident.


Werman: There’s also been a lot of reporting about the ferry company itself and it owners, who for years had been overloading their boats. Are you surprised the public isn’t looking for their pound of flesh from the ferry owners and not the captain?


Strother: Sure. There is a lot of anger at the ferry company too. A lot of inconsistencies have come up. The investigation has found that corners were cut, the Sewol ferry had been overloaded the day it set sail, and that government inspectors pretty much let it pass right by them.


Werman: If we go back to April, following the ferry sinking, people were unified in tragedy. Now though we’re hearing some criticism of the families, the people who lost their loved ones on that boat. What’s that criticism about?


Strother: That’s been one of the most surprising things that have happened. The parents of the Sewol victims were more or less untouchable back in April. But for the past couple of months, there’s been a real rift. I was at a protest a few weeks back that was aimed against the Sewol families. Some protesters burnt a yellow flag broidered with a yellow ribbon on it, which is a symbol for the Sewol victims. One of the protesters that I spoke to says they’re asking too much. They want the nation to keep grieving. They’ve asked the government to relaunch an investigation into what caused the boat to sink. Many people seem to be fed up with it.


Werman: 10 passengers from the disaster have still not been found. What’s the update on these missing people?


Strother: Well, the families of most of these 10 passengers are still down near the site of the accident. They were actually given the option to vote on whether or not to continue the recovery effort. But 5 of the 9 families said “No, the government still needs to recover those missing bodies.” That also has triggered a lot of frustration. A lot of people want to get this wrapped up, and that involves bringing the ship up. But the families don’t want to take that step yet.


Werman: Jason Strother, reporting in South Korea, speaking with us from Seoul. Thank you.


Strother: Thank you, Marco.