World News

Court rules South Korea must compensate families in Sewol tragedy

Posted July 19, 2018 2:55 p.m. EDT

— A South Korean court ruled Thursday the government is partially liable for the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry four years ago and must compensate families of the victims, according to news agencies.

The passenger ferry sank off the southwest coast of South Korea in April 2014. As the country watched live broadcasts in horror, 304 of the almost 500 passengers -- most of them high school students on a field trip to the holiday island of Jeju -- drowned.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported a Seoul court ruled the state is liable in part, and must compensate 200 million South Korean won (US$177,000) to the families of each victim, and an additional 40 million won (about $35,200) to the parents of every student who lost their lives.

Family members lodged the suit in September 2015, asking the court to determine "state liability for the cause, lax handling and outcome" of the accident, Yonhap reported.

One of the members of the association of victims' families, Yoo Kyung-keun, struggled to hold back tears when comparing the treatment of the Sewol students with that of the young Thai soccer team recently rescued from a flooded cave system in that country, Reuters reported.

"It was the first time I envied the Thai people and I will continue to envy them," Yoo said outside the court after the ruling, adding he wished he were a Thai national.

"I was so glad everyone was alive and safe," he said of soccer team, Reuters reported.

A prior investigation into the sinking found evidence of negligence by the coast guard and the ship's captain and crew. Survivors said the passengers were told by the Sewol's officers to stay put as the vessel sank.

Lee Joon-seok, the captain, was found guilty of murder on appeal and sentenced to life in prison.

The incident was a black mark on the presidency of Park Geun-hye, who appeared to be absent during the unfolding disaster. Park has since been impeached and is facing corruption charges unrelated to the Sewol disaster.

Thursday was the first time a South Korean court acknowledged the government's liability in the tragedy, which involved a botched rescue and a structurally unsound ferry, according to Reuters.

South Korean authorities raised the vessel in March 2017, hoping they could find the the missing remains of nine people. One set was found in May that year.