SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — In the same narrow waterways where more than 300 people died this spring aboard the ferry Sewol, another ship owned by the same company crashed into an oil tanker 11 years earlier. The ferry's captain had chosen the difficult water path to cut a mere seven miles from its journey.
It was among five crashes, from 2003 to 2011, that government investigators blamed mostly on sailors of Chonghaejin Marine Co. ferries. Three of the incidents occurred within a 12-month span, and after those occurred, a government investigator chided the company for failing to make safety reforms.
None of the crashes caused fatalities, but together, some experts say, they were reason enough for regulators to suspend or even revoke the company's license. That never happened. Chonghaejin was even allowed to expand by adding the Sewol to its fleet last year.
Chonghaejin's punishment for those five failures: two one-month suspensions for sailors, three verbal warnings to captains, one verbal warning to the company and a fine of 7.5 million won ($7,400). The biggest fine that can be issued in ferry-safety cases is just 30 million won ($29,400).
The Korean Maritime Safety Tribunal, an arm of the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries that serves as a maritime court, recommended safety changes to the company as well, but they were nonbinding.
After the 2003 oil-tanker crash, the tribunal asked that Chonghaejin stop using the Maenggol Channel, but the shortcut saved the company money on fuel. The Sewol sank in the same channel, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the 2003 crash.
Chung Yeong-seok, a professor of maritime law at Korea Maritime and Ocean University, said South Korea could have and should have gone further than it did.
"Even though the current law is not strict, the maritime ministry, with its administrative power, could (cancel a ferry license) based on the tribunal's findings. But it didn't do it," Chung said.
Prosecutors blame the CEO and four company employees for causing the April 16 Sewol sinking by overloading the ship with poorly stowed cargo after a risky redesign, and by neglecting safety in other ways. They also accuse 15 crew members of negligence and of failing to perform their duty to rescue passengers. All but one of the crew have pleaded not guilty, and lawyers for the other defendants have said the cause of the sinking remains unclear.
Chonghaejin's license has been revoked, and authorities continue to search for the patriarch of the family that owns the company, 73-year-old billionaire Yoo Byung-eun.
The government has blamed its failure to prevent the disaster on the cozy ties between the industry and regulators. President Park Geun-hye has vowed to get rid of what she and South Korean media have called a "government mafia" consisting of retired public servants who work at private companies.
South Korea had reason not to revoke or suspend Chonghaejin's license before the Sewol sank. The company had a monopoly on South Korea's longest domestic sea route, the one between Incheon and Jeju that the Sewol was plying went it went down. A license suspension or revocation would have affected travel plans for thousands of people and transport for thousands of tons of cargo.
Monopolies, or near-monopolies, are the rule among South Korea's roughly 100 coastal ferry routes. All but four of them are operated by either one or two ferry operators, according to Kwon Jun-young, a director at the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.
Officials said they did not know how many ferry licenses South Korea has revoked in recent years, but they added that it was a rare move.
"Canceling a license causes huge difficulties for island residents, so instead we impose fines and urge companies to take cautions," Kwon said.
Ministry officials said the loss of Chonghaejin's Incheon-Jeju ferries has been tough on residents and shipping companies, and that they are trying to find another company to take over the route.
Instead of taking disruptive measures against Chonghaejin, South Korean regulators chose gentler methods that had little apparent effect on safety.
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