The Sewol, a South Korean passenger-cargo ferry that was carrying 476 people—including a group of high school students on a field trip to Jeju Island—capsized on April 16, 2014, and sank to the bottom of the sea off Korea’s southern coast.
The Korean Coast Guard rescued most of the crew, including the captain, and some of the passengers. Before the Coast Guard or the Navy arrived on the scene, fishing boats and commercial vessels saved other passengers who happened to be on the deck or escaped soon after the capsizing. The rest were, unfortunately, trapped inside and sank together with the ferry. 294 were later found dead, and 10 are still “missing” almost 5 months after their disappearance.
The ship’s sinking may seem an unfortunate accident, and the passengers’ deaths its tragic ending. Once the surface is scratched, however, a more complicated picture emerges.
The Sewol sank under the weight of the neoliberal state that diminished its role in safety regulation and oversight. Its passengers drowned to death because the state relegated the rescue operation to a private salvage firm and prioritized its own interests over those of the passengers. But when victims’ families demanded the truth, the strong state reared its menacing head by deploying its force to silence them and mobilizing its resources to hide its responsibility.
The Korean state’s deregulation and dereliction combined to create the perfect storm that sent the Sewol and its passengers to the bottom of the sea. The state’s intimidation has suggested that a cover-up is under way to obscure the state’s responsibility, contrary to President Park Geun-Hye’s public promise to get to the bottom of the accident.