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New probe into Sewol prompts political spat

Nov 08,2019
At the order of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, a special investigation team will today begin a new probe into the Sewol ferry’s sinking in 2014.

The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said Wednesday that it will reinvestigate various suspicions surrounding the deadly ferry accident on April 16, 2014. Of the 476 onboard, 299 died and five others are still missing.

Im Gwan-hyeok, head of Ansan Branch of Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office, was named as the head the new investigation team.

Im said he will complete the selection of the new team’s members by today. The team will have eight prosecutors including two senior prosecutors, dozens of investigators and an office located at the Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office.

“I will conduct a transparent, fair and thorough investigation without any prejudice,” Im told the JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday.

Since the ferry’s sinking in April 2014, a series of investigations took place to reveal the reasons behind the accident, abysmal rescue operations, poor government response and subsequent cover-up attempts. The prosecution’s latest investigation is the seventh of its kind.

Throughout 2014, the prosecution and the police conducted joint investigations, and the National Assembly also conducted its own probe from April to August 2014.

The Board of Audit and Inspection also conducted an audit on the government’s response to the accident from May 2014 until October that year, while the Korea Maritime Safety Tribunal conducted another probe from April until December 2014.

A special investigation commission involving civilian experts and public servants conducted an investigation from 2015 till 2016. After its operational period ended on June 2016, the second special investigation commission was launched in March 2018 and is currently still probing the incident.

The prosecution’s special investigation team will first look into the suspicions that the commission has so far uncovered. The commission held a press conference last week and revealed some new allegations.

According to the commission, a helicopter dispatched for the rescue operation was used by senior officials including the head of the Coast Guard. Although a student was found alive, he was transported to a hospital using three different boats, which took 4 hours and 41 minutes. An aerial transportation would have taken 20 minutes, the commission said, adding that the student died upon reaching the hospital.

It also asked the prosecution in April to investigate suspicions that the Navy and the Coast Guard manipulated video devices, which had stored CCTV footage of the accident.

The ruling party and families of the victims have demanded that a complete reinvestigation of the accident is necessary to address the new allegations. An association of the families said it will file a formal petition to the prosecution next week to investigate 122 people, including former President Park Geun-hye and Liberty Korea Party Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn. Hwang was the justice minister in 2014.

It remains to be seen if the prosecution will question Hwang. Ruling party politicians and families of the victims have long demanded that Hwang be questioned over suspicions he influenced earlier probes in order to conceal the Park administration’s responsibility.

“The suspicions were already verified several times,” Hwang said Wednesday. “They must stop repeating something that’s already been investigated and cleared.”

Speculation still lingers in the political arena that the prosecution is trying to find an artificial balance by targeting the main opposition party, as it went after President Moon Jae-in’s key ally Cho Kuk. A senior prosecution official, however, told the JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday that “We didn’t make any political consideration,” stressing that Yoon had always promised to reopen the case if there were any new suspicions.

BY SER MYO-JA, KIM KI-JEONG [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]