Greed Was Biggest Culprit in Ferry Disaster

The ferry disaster off the southwest coast has put the spotlight on the ways in which Korean society often sacrifices safety and reliability for faster, more immediate gain.

The ferry operator, which blatantly flaunted safety rules for the sake of squeezing a few extra won from the business, is a textbook example.

Chonghaejin Marine ignored passenger safety because the revenue from fares was relatively small compared to the money it could make from cargo.

At the time of the accident, the Sewol carried 3,608 tons of cargo for which the operator earned approximately W70 million (US$1=W1,031) in freight charges, in contrast to about W30 million from the fares a total of 446 passengers. It was the tail wagging the dog.

Overloading had become routine. At the time of accident, the ferry carried a whopping 3.7 times its cargo capacity of 978 tons. It was more like a cargo ship that grudgingly permitted a few passengers on board, and then abandoned them to their fate the moment something went wrong.

The operator earned W71,000 per third-class passenger, compared to W593,100 for a fully loaded 4.5-ton truck, which means that to the operator each truck was worth more than eight passengers. The Sewol carried 180 vehicles, 32 more than its capacity of 148.

In order to squeeze more cargo on board, the ferry had discharged the ballast water aimed at providing balance, thereby causing the tragic accident.

The operator also hired Lee Joon-seok, a 69-year-old man well past retirement age, on contract for a monthly pay of W2.7 million, to scrimp on the average pay of W3.06 million for coastal ferry crew.

An official with the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said, "It must have been hard for Lee to feel any kind of responsibility in such a low-paying job."

The operator also spent as little money as possible when it bought the ferry second-hand in 2012. The 18-year-old ship that had been built in Japan and sold for W11.6 billion. Chonghaejin decided to buy the dilapidated ship because building a new passenger ferry of the same size would cost between W60 billion and W100 billion.

And despite the ship's age the operator added more decks to accommodate more passengers, which rendered ferry's center of gravity dangerously high.

englishnews@chosun.com / May 06, 2014 08:28 KST