MS Sewol back from the grave

April 2014, the South Korean ferry: MS Sewol sinks after a sharp turn which led to heavy list. The ferry was out of balance due to illegal modifications made by her greedy capitalist owners, the Cheonghaejin Marine Company (went bankrupt after the sinking). Because of the corrupt nature of South Korea, the authorities look the other way when the ship was modified to accommodate more passengers and cargo. Although the MS Sewol took a long time to sink, the heavy list made it impossible to lower lifeboats. Out of 476 passengers, only 172 were able to escape. Most died because the crew told them to stay in their cabins. Many of the victims were teenagers, children on a school-trip. Now after lying on the seafloor for almost three years, the wreck of the MS Sewol has been raised to the surface!

The story of this Korean: Titanic is sad and clear proof that unregulated capitalism is a serious danger to human life. South Korea has modern safety laws and officials to enforce them. But political and corporate corruption is high. The Republic of Korea is a flawed democracy and many laws to protect workers and consumers, are often ignored by capitalists and government officials. Owners of big enterprises are able to bypass safety laws in order to increase their drive for profits. We all know stories of shopping malls collapsing because the builders failed to build a strong structure, all in the name of saving costs. People who protest against the danger of putting profits over people’s lives, are often intimidated or sacked. The Cheonghaejin Marine Company cared little for the lives of 476 passengers, when they (illegally) modified the MS Sewol to increase its profitability!

Disaster happened on 16 April 2014. The (out of balance) MS Sewol was traveling to Jeju Island. This was her 242 trip to the island and this time she was commanded by 69-year-old Captain Lee Joon-seok, who had been brought in as a replacement for the regular captain. The ship’s crew was never trained for an emergency, the safety budget from the Cheonghaejin Marine Company was only $2, which they used to buy a paper certificate. Out of 33 crew members, 19 were part-timers and not regular on the ship. On 16 April 2014, captain Lee Joon-seok was not on the bridge. The ferry was commanded by third mate Park Han-kyul and controlled by helmsman Cho Joon-k!

Prior to departure, the MS Sewol was modified to carry more cargo and passengers. This made the ferry out of balance and at risk of capsizing. Still the MS Sewol past safety inspections of the Korean Register of Shipping. This was possible because false documents had been provided. That the Cheonghaejin Marine Company was able to falsify documents shows criminal intent as they knew that they were doing wrong. In total, the MS Sewol was too heavy and in danger of capsizing if a turn was carried out too sharp!

Captain Shin who commanded the ferry on regular routes knew of this problem. But when he tried to warn his capitalist bosses they treated to fire him. On the last journey of the MS Sewol, Shin was replaced by Lee Joon-seok. Shin’s full name was not shown as in South Korea many capitalists work together to attack whistle-blowers. Captain Shin would be out of work in a matter of moments, if his full name would be revealed. Since the capitalist state works in favor of corrupt companies like Cheonghaejin, it is no surprise that Shin wanted to stay partly anonymous!

At 8:46 a.m on 16 April, helmsmen Cho Joon-ki was ordered to change course. He complied by turning the ship. This sharp maneuver however led the unbalanced  ship to turn sharply to port.  By 8:49 the MS Sewol was listing 20% towards the port-side, this caused all cargo and on board materials to fall towards the left-side. Now the ship was doomed, at 8:50 a.m less then five minutes after the unfortunate sharp turn, the MS Sewol was death in the water. The list was now 30% which made walking impossible. Passengers were then told by captain Lee Joon-seok and his bridge officers to stay in their cabins. Meanwhile the MS Sewol was making water as she slowly started to capsize. Two minutes after the engines were stopped, the captain called for help.  The communications between the ship and shore lasted almost 20 minutes. By 9:15 a.m the list reached 50% and there was still no general evacuation order!

Rescue boats and helicopters were speeding towards the doomed ship. The South Korean coast guard made its way to the MS Sewol. When their boats reached her, they found no people in the water. Those who managed to reached the upper decks were standing on the ship’s side, waiting for helicopter rescue. While 172 passengers were making their escape, the rest remained below deck. Korean society demands obedience to those in command. Most teenagers believed in what the captain said, that it was too dangerous to move around. While the MS Sewol was slowing sinking, they stayed and waited for help that never came.  At 9:23 a.m the coast guard told the sinking ferry to equip the passengers with lifebelts. The bridge responded that the intercom had failed and that they were still decided what to do. It would take another seven minutes before Lee Joon-seok gave the order to abandon ship. However with the intercom out of order and most crew members untrained to help others, no attempts were made to save the children trapped in their cabins!

Contact with the MS Sewol was lost around 9:38 a.m. Those who made it outside were jumping overboard, to be picked up by rescue boats. Helicopters were able to save some who got outside on the starboard side. Captain Lee Joon-seok and his officers were saved at 9:48 a.m from the bridge. Because of the sudden list, the captain was unable to get into uniform. He was saved with no pants on. The MS Sewol capsized and to the horror of some rescue boats, they could see people trapped behind the windows. It took two hours and 30 minutes before the whole ship was submerged. We can only imaging the final moments of those 295 people as they drowned to death. South Korea and the whole world was in deep shock!

The sinking of this ferry was a capitalist crime. A crime which can only happen when a government puts the freedom of capitalists before the safety of its people. It was only after the sinking that it was found out, that the modifications to the MS Sewol were made illegally and that documents had been falsified by the Cheonghaejin Marine Company. Yoo Byung-eun was the company’s president and biggest shareholder. After the tragedy he want into hiding and was found death, he had killed himself. Captain Lee Joon-seok and many officers were blamed for the fact that they kept passengers inside the ship. Out of 33 crew members, only three choose to stay behind and help passengers. Park Ji-young, Jeong Hyun-seon and Kim Ki-woong are called hero’s as they remained on the ferry. These three brave crew members died in the sinking while their captain and officers saved themselves. On 11 November 2014, the Gwangju District Court found Captain Lee Jun-seok guilty of negligence and he was sentenced to 36 years imprisonment. Because of his age, he will likely die in prison!

Anger and deep sadness led to a rise in protests against the conservative government. It marked the start of the end for South Korean president Park Geun-hye. The first female leader was soon facing massive protests as a corruption scandal surfaced in 2016. Park was impeached by the National Assembly on 9 December 2016 and the Constitutional Court removed her from the presidency in March of 2017. The MS Sewol disaster was a major blow for Korean conservatives. Yet the corrupt culture of South Korea did not die. Capitalism is still powerful and despite protests and demands for change, nothing has been done fundamentally. The south of Korea remains a flawed democracy, that fails to protect working class people and their families from capitalist greed. Danwon High School in the city of Ansan lost almost all of its students. Only 75 out of 325 survived the sinking. When the school reopened most class rooms were turned into memorial shrines for the victims!

Three years after the sinking, the wreck of the MS Sewol is lifted from its grave. The ship was lying on its side as it was raised. The majority of victims were recovered by navy divers before the wreck was raised, only 10 remain missing. It is hoped their bodies will be found inside the wreck once it reaches shore. The Cheonghaejin Marine Company went out of business in late 2014. Many high ranking bosses were arrested and charged with corruption. The disaster also led to a final tragic death. Among the 172 survivors was the vice principal of Danwon High School. He could not live with the fact that most of his pupils died on 16 April 2014. He had organized the school trip, he organized the teenagers on board the MS Sewol. Suffering from survivors guilt and deep depression, the poor man killed himself two days after the sinking. In his wallet the police found the following note: ”Surviving alone is too painful when 200 lives are unaccounted for … I take full responsibility” His final wish was to be cremated and his ashes to be scattered over the wreck site!

Korean workers need to understand that capitalist politics led to this tragedy. Had the ship not been illegally modified to carry more cargo and passengers, there would not have been an unbalance. Furthermore if regulations were enforced as they should have been, the MS Sewol would have seen allowed to travel. Yet she made over 200 trips while being out of balance. Because government officials and companies were so linked to each other, many regulations are often not enforced. Bureaucrats do not wish to hinder the operations of capitalists in their eternal quest for profits. Capitalist greed killed these 295 people on 16 April 2014. The wreck of the ship is a eternal warning to South Korea. This is the result of greed and profiteering. To end it, workers need to brake with both conservative and liberal politicians. They need to build their own independent party of working class people!

This is not easy as South Korean society is dominated by corrupt big companies who control not only politicians, but also the media and influence many trade unions. The undemocratic: National Security Law, makes it easy for the capitalist government to ban political parties, which they did in the case of the Unified Progressive Party. The Republic of Korea therefore remains a deeply flawed nation and it is up to socialists, trade unionists and genuine leftists to fight for a different Korea. The political right-wing is strong as liberals and conservatives enjoy unlimited support from the ruling class. But workers are the pillar on which they stand. If this pillar decides to walk away, the whole rotten capitalist system will collapse!


The wreck of the MS Sewol in March 2017 after it laid under water for three years!