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Sewol Ferry Captain Escapes Death Penalty in South Korea — Again

An appeals court sentenced Lee Joon-seok to life in prison for abandoning the sinking ferry that killed more than 300 people last year.
Photo by Ahn Young-joon/AP

He is the ferry captain that will forever be remembered for the video that shows him leaping from the MV Sewol in a soaking sweater and his underwear as hundreds of passengers, mostly children, drowned in the hull of the dilapidated ferry, which sank off the coast of South Korea on April 16, 2014.

Nothing, not even Lee Joon-seok's lawyers, who appealed his 36-year prison sentence for negligence and abandonment, could erase the photos and footage of his hurried exit from the public records. Yet, despite testimony given by several survivors of the tragedy and the unflattering public perception of Lee that helped establish his guilt, judges decided Monday to once again spare the captain from the death penalty at the final hearing of an appeals trial at Gwangju High Court — a fate the 69-year-old had already managed to escape last November. Instead, Lee was sentenced to life in prison.


Lee was among 14 crew members who were some of the first survivors to be rescued by the coast guard after the 18-year-old ferry — which was carrying 476 people — teetered dangerously before capsizing and sinking in cold waters off the port city of Incheon, west of Seoul. A small number of crew members that remained behind to assist passengers died alongside the more than 300 who perished that day. Most of the victims were students from a single school on a field trip.

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At the captain's original trial, some of the 75 students who survived the wreck took the stand and recounted how they were told by crew to remain in their cabins as the vessel went down, even as Lee and his crew scrambled to safety. One student said they obeyed the captain's orders until the boat tilted so far that the cabin door was suddenly above their heads.

Another pupil recalled how people were lurched down the incline of the careening boat, while another described how a swell of water washed classmates back into the ship as they rushed to clamber out.

As well as jumping ship and violating "seaman's law," Lee also came under fire for leaving his inexperienced helmsman to steer the ferry at the time it took a fatal sharp turn and began to capsize.

The court eventually found Lee and three senior crew members guilty of "homicide through willful negligence." Despite prosecutors recommending the death penalty, all of the crew members were each given between five and 36 years in prison on a range of maritime law violations last November. All have since appealed their sentences.


A total of 139 people involved in the incident, including ferry company officials, crew members, and shipping regulators, were arrested. In a mysterious turn of events, the decomposing body of the billionaire owner of the company that operated the ferry was found face up in an apricot orchard last June.

Related: South Korea's Culture Is Not to Blame for the Ferry Disaster

During closing statements at Lee's appeals trial, the captain admitted he had "sinned greatly."

"I'll reflect on myself and apologize till my dying day," Lee said, according to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency. "I, particularly, bow down and apologize to the bereaved families of the students of Danwon High School killed in the sinking."

But many disconsolate parents, some of whom have joined in calls for Lee's execution, have refused to accept the captain's apology. After the original hearing, a group of victims' families gave a statement saying they were "devastated" about the outcome of the trial.

Simmering anger in South Korea has persisted for more than a year after the fatal accident. Families and supporters earlier this month staged a rally that drew thousands to protest the government's incompetence and inaction in the matter. At one point, the demonstration erupted in violence, resulting in dozens of injuries.

For months, protesters have continued to demand that authorities raise the waterlogged 7,500-ton Sewol from the sea floor at an estimated cost of up to $137 million. They have also demanded the recovery of nine bodies that remain unaccounted for.

The judge's decision to spare Lee from the death penalty Monday came on the same day South Korea's president accepted the resignation of her newly appointed prime minister, Lee Wan-koo, who has been accused of receiving 30 million won ($27,700) in bribes from businessman Sung Wan-jong — a charge the outgoing official has denied. Sung died of an apparent suicide earlier this month.

Lee Wan-koo's predecessor, Chung Hong-won, resigned from his post days after the Sewol sank. In South Korea, the president retains executive power over the country. The prime minister steps in when the president is unable to act, but the position has been increasingly seen as a ceremonial role that can be vacated at seemingly short notice in the face of government scandal or public criticism.