Association Officials Arrested After South Korean Ferry Tragedy

The Sewol ferry disaster, which left hundreds dead and missing earlier this month, has led to the arrest of several association officials because of alleged oversight failings—and questions as to whether industry groups are too cozy with the South Korean government.

One of the deadliest tragedies in South Korea’s recent history has raised serious questions about safety regulations for shipping companies, and officials say the leaders of certain Korean trade groups bear some responsibility for the disaster.

The sinking of the Sewol ferry, which left at least 302 people dead or missing earlier this month, exposed regulatory oversights, and many questions are being directed at the Korea Shipping Association (KSA), the industry’s trade group. KSA plays a self-regulatory role, but investigators accuse the association of lax standards. The ship was sailing despite being extremely overloaded.

The government says this is the efficient way to do things, but it actually lacks objectivity.

On Monday three KSA officials—a director and two employees—were arrested. Investigators have accused them of destroying evidence related to the disaster or obstructing justice, according to Reuters.

The association officials were far from the first to be arrested over the disaster. The investigation into what happened to the Sewol ferry on April 16 has been far-reaching, most notably leading to the arrests of the surviving members of the crew, including the captain.

Too Close?

The tragedy has raised questions about the public-private partnerships that often play a regulatory role in Korea.

KSA serves dual roles for the industry—as regulator and as lobbying group. The organization had a conflict of interest, according to one Korean watchdog organization, the Citizens’ Coalition for Safety.

“It is not just a problem of the shipping association—industry groups are often given power to oversee their members’ problems,” the coalition’s Lee Yoon-ho told the Financial Times. “So we can’t expect proper supervision.”

The Wall Street Journal noted that even the country’s president, Park Geun-hye, has raised concerns about a too-close relationship between the government and industry. In particular, she criticized the practice of federal maritime ministry officials who retire, then take jobs with industry regulatory bodies such as the KSA or Korean Register of Shipping (KR).

“South Korea has lots of cases like the Korea Shipping Association, where a lobby group that represents members’ interests also conducts safety checks and industry supervision,” Ewha Women’s University public policy professor Park Jhung-soo told Reuters. “The government says this is the efficient way to do things, but it actually lacks objectivity.”

Like South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, the presidents of both KSA and the KR have resigned, each expressing remorse over the tragedy.

The Sewol ferry, shown prior to its sinking. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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