TIME South Korea

The Doomed South Korean Ferry Was Often Heavily Overloaded

A dinghy involved in salvage operations passes near the upturned South Korean ferry Sewol in the sea off Jindo, South Korea, on April 17, 2014 Kim Kyung-Hoon—Reuters

Shoddy implementation of safety regulations is in the spotlight after documents confirm that the ill-fated Sewol ferry made hundreds of voyages overladen with cargo. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has vowed to “punish those responsible” for the tragedy

The South Korean ferry that sank April 16 exceeded its cargo limit on 246 trips during the previous 13 months, according to official documents, as the death toll from the tragedy reaches 259 with 43 passengers still missing.

The revelation has cast a spotlight on safety regulations in South Korea, one of the world’s most developed nations. The Associated Press reports that while one industry body recorded the weight of freight, another set limits, but neither communicated with each other, resulting in a blind spot that allowed nearly every voyage to be conducted while dangerously overladen.

The Sewol was examined early 2012 by the Korean Register of Shipping after it had been modified to accommodate more passenger cabins on its third, fourth and fifth decks. The agency slashed the ship’s cargo capacity by more than half, to 987 tons, and decreed that it must carry more than 2,000 tons of ballast water to maintain stability.

But only the firm owning the ship, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd., received the register’s report, meaning neither the coast guard nor the watchdog Korea Shipping Association had any knowledge of the new limit before the disaster.

All 15 of the ship’s crew responsible for navigation have been arrested, and the offices of Chonghaejin Marine and homes of key staff have been raided. Those deemed most responsible stand to receive life jail terms.

South Korea President Park Geun-hye expressed sympathy for victims of the disaster during her second meeting with bereaved families over the weekend.

“I’ll punish those responsible for the accident and any who committed crimes,” she told around 50 relatives of those on board the doomed ferry in comments republished on a presidential-office website. “I feel boundless responsibility.”

The 62-year-old’s approval rate has slid to a four-month low amid public anger over the tragedy.

The Sewol sank in calm waters en route from Incheon to the vacation island of Jeju. Most of the 476 people on board were teens on a high school outing.

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