On Monday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye likened the actions and decisions of the captain and some of the crew members of the sunken ferry in Sewol as “unforgivable, murderous behavior.”
The disaster has left some 300 people missing or dead. Journalist Jason Strother joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson from Seoul with the latest.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And let's get the latest now on that ferry disaster in South Korea. So far, more than 85 people confirmed dead, 220 remain missing. The captain and two other crewmembers have been arrested on suspicion of negligence. And South Korea's president says their actions are akin to murder. Reporter Jason Strother is a freelance journalist based in Seoul. Jason, welcome.
JASON STROTHER: Thank you, Jeremy.
HOBSON: Well, the president has come out and said that what happened on this ship was akin to murder. Tell us more about what she had to say.
STROTHER: Sure. Well, President Park Geun-hye, she made these remarks after transcripts were released of radio communication between the crew of the ferry that sank last week and ground control that pretty much painted a very frantic picture. The crew didn't really seem to know the best way to evacuate the passengers onboard. Ground control was very - seemed very concerned that the passengers weren't going to get off in time. She said it was unimaginable how the crew could be this negligent.
However, I think her remarks, you know, have a different meaning. Ever since this ship sank last week with the hundreds of passengers onboard, it's really been her administration that's taken the heat from both the families of the victims. And also, I think, overall, the South Korean population feels that the government botched this rescue attempt one way or another. I think she's now deflecting that criticism and rechanneling it to the captain and the crew, which he, Captain Lee, is under arrest right now as well, as several of his crewmembers, and they're facing a slew of charges essentially for abandoning the ship.
HOBSON: But have they responded to these charges that they did something that was akin to murder?
STROTHER: When Captain Lee Joon-seok appeared on camera as he was being arrested, he said that he had done the best that he could. He was afraid that if he had passengers put on lifejackets and jumped into the sea that they'd be swept away by the current or even freeze to death in those cold waters. The rescue boats hadn't arrived yet. But it is clear from the transcripts that there was a lot of confusion, and that the distress calls came out at least a half hour after the ship started to capsize.
HOBSON: Do we have more of a sense of how this happened in the first place?
STROTHER: You know, the investigation is under way right now. The prevailing theory is that while the ship was passing through this one part of the Yellow Sea, the crew might have tried to take a short cut. And it wasn't even Captain Lee who was at the helm. It was his third mate, a young woman only identified as Ms. Park here in local media, who evidently had no experience navigating these waters. It's thought that she made a very abrupt turn, which caused all the cargo on board - cars, freights, container boxes - to shift to one side of the ferry and thus caused it to capsize.
HOBSON: And what about the rescue efforts at this point? Are they still rescue efforts? Or at this point, is it recovery?
STROTHER: I think they're still calling it a rescue and not a recovery out of consideration for the families that are still camped out on the island of Jindo, which is the closest land point to where the wreck occurred. They have been very critical of this whole operation. The families say the navy, the coast guard, the government dragged its feet, that it - that rescuers didn't make the kind of progress they expected of them. Even though divers are just pulling out corpses at this point, they're definitely not ready to call it just a recovery.
HOBSON: And I'm just trying to think, if something like this were to happen in this country, to have potentially hundreds of people - young people dead from a ferry accident, it would shock the nation. How are people feeling in Seoul?
STROTHER: Jeremy, I think the overall impression here in South Korea is, you know, while I think there is still a lot of anger at the government for what people perceive as a botched rescue attempt, they're also upset that this reflects just a lack of safety standards that exist here in South Korea. You know, this nation moved very fast. It developed very fast. It became a first world economy over night, essentially. But a lot of things got skipped over in that march forward. And some of that includes even the basic things like safety concerns, having enough lifeboats on ships, these kind of things.
And I think South Koreans are fed up with these companies like this ferry operator who cut costs. And I think this could cause, you know, somewhat of a consumer uprising here where people start demanding these types of improvements in order to make things like public transportation more safe.
HOBSON: Reporter Jason Strother joining us from Seoul, South Korea. Jason, thank you so much.
STROTHER: Thank you, Jeremy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.