As the death toll rises from the sinking of South Korea's Sewol ferry, which left 300 dead or missing, blame has been placed on the captain accused of abandoning ship as his passengers were left to die below — reportedly told by the crew to stay put inside the boat.
Captain Lee Joon-seok's actions have not only been derided as the "evil of Sewol" by the public and "akin to murder" by the country's President, but they also led to his arrest on suspicions of negligence and abandonment. Crew members are facing charges as well. This has led to a widespread discussion as to whether a civilian captain abandoning his ship is not just a cowardly act but also a criminal one.
In spite of a historic precedence of valor — the Titanic’s captain is an iconic example of honorably going down with the ship — there aren't international laws that require a captain to remain on board. “There is nothing in any [international maritime agreement] to specifically require a captain to stay on board the vessel in the event of an incident such as this, however he or she does retain full responsibility for the safety of the vessel and those on board,” International Maritime Organization spokesman Lee Adamson told ABC News.
But according to Rod Sullivan, a professor specializing in maritime law at Florida Coastal School of Law, these laws do exist on a country-by-country basis — and South Korea is an exception to the general rule.
"Specifically under Article 10 of the Korean Seaman’s Act, it makes it a crime to go ahead and depart the vessels ahead of the passengers," Sullivan, who has also taught in South Korea, tells TIME. "I know of no other country besides South Korea that has this specific provision requiring the captain to stay on board. There is no counterpart in U.S. law or an international law that would apply."
Violating Article 10 would result in a maximum fine of $5,000. But Lee, the Sewol captain, stands accused of far greater crimes, under various maritime laws that are applicable both in South Korea and internationally. Sullivan tells TIME that Article 11 of Korea's Seaman's Act mandates the "captain has a duty to take all necessary measures to save the lives" of those aboard a ship, and breaches of these duties could lead to a maximum of five years in prison.
"Clearly there was a major mistake on behalf of the captain," Sullivan says. "I think that the thing up for question is whether this constitutes negligent homicide or manslaughter. If it was gross negligence or negligence it could be up to a life imprisonment."
There are comparable laws in the U.S. and internationally. U.S. Code Title 46 Section 2303 lays out a captain's duties relating to marine casualties and assistance, which amounts to getting everyone on board out of danger to the best of the captain's abilities, or face a $1,000 fine and/or up to two years in jail. Lee apparently failed one of the first tests of being a captain, the way some sailors see it. "That guy’s an embarrassment to anybody who’s ever had command at sea," John Padgett, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and former submarine captain, told the New York Times.
Sullivan says his gut reaction would be similarly negative, but he wonders if he might feel different six months from now. While both Joseph Hazelwood, captain of Exxon Valdez, and John Lerro, captain in the Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster that killed 35, faced public scrutiny for their role in deadly accidents, Hazelwood was acquitted of all felony charges (he was convicted of misdemeanor negligence) and Lerro was cleared of all wrongdoing by the Coast Guard and a grand jury.
"The lesson to be learned here is that in times when we are passionate about ship collisions, we tend to think everything that is done wrong is a crime," Sullivan says. "But with the passage of time and before a neutral decision make like a judge and jury [is involved], more often than not they are not criminal convictions."