What We Found
Improved Inspections. Ignored Recommendations.
In the wake of the Sewol disaster, it became clear that South Korea faced two major problems with inspectors.
One was a glaring conflict of interest: Inspectors were paid by the Korea Shipping Association, a lobbying group. Inspectors reported feeling pressured to turn a blind eye to safety problems or risk being reassigned to distant ports.
In addition, the rules governing inspections were so lax that many inspectors simply eyeballed ships from shore to see if they were overloaded, a practice that left them vulnerable to being fooled. That’s what happened with the Sewol: Most of its ballast water — which would have helped balance the ship — had been drained so that it wouldn’t appear to sit too low in the water to inspectors on shore.
Inspectors now work for a company overseen by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and are required to board ferries to check their seaworthiness. During recent visits to Jeju and Incheon, a port west of Seoul, The Times witnessed inspectors doing just that, sometimes when they did not know they were being observed.
“Before the Sewol incident, we were not required by law to visit the ship for inspection,” said Jeong Han-gu, who supervises inspectors at that port in Incheon. “Even if we wanted to, we often didn’t have the manpower or the time to do it.”
The government has also increased the number of inspectors to 142 from 73, and inspectors say they feel much freer to cite shippers for safety violations. In 2015, the Oceans Ministry added another layer of safety by dispatching maritime supervisors to ports to oversee the on-site inspectors.
But on the critical issue of cargo cheating, even an army of honest inspectors would be hamstrung by the fact that they do not have equipment to independently weigh trucks right before loading.
In the months after the Sewol’s sinking, safety experts advised installing that equipment at the docks. But the government dismissed the recommendation because of the cost, lack of space and the fear of slowing down loading.
And despite the improvements that have been made, corruption still appears to be leading to deaths on South Korean ships.
Three years after the Sewol sank, a South Korean-owned cargo ship, the Stellar Daisy, went down after reporting flooding in a cargo compartment. Only two of its 24 sailors were saved. Prosecutors recently indicted six officials of the ship operator, saying they ignored severe corrosion to save their company money. They also indicted an official with the government-licensed inspection company that performed a structural check, saying he did not adequately inspect the ship.
What company did the inspection? The same one that gave the risky renovations on the Sewol passing grades.
The Takeaway: Changing laws is a lot easier than changing culture.