The Tragedy of the Sewol
On the morning of April 16, 2014, the Sewol ferry capsized and sank off the coast of South Korea. The tragedy took the lives of 304 people, 250 of them high school students on a class trip. Even though it took hours for the ship to slip below the surface, the Korean Coast Guard’s rescue operation failed to save most of the passengers. The sinking traumatized the nation and resulted in significant changes to the government, including the reorganization of the Coast Guard, the gutting of the Defense Security Command (the military’s intelligence service), and the fall of then-President Park Geun-Hye’s Administration.
More than nine years later, the cause has not been officially determined. The last official body in South Korea to investigate the sinking, the Social Disasters Commission, produced a report in September, 2022 that could not rule out an “external” cause, such as a collision with an underwater object. Many inaccuracies and misconceptions contained in the early news reports are still reported today as indisputable truths by some global media outlets. This is because, before it fell, the Park Administration orchestrated one of the greatest messaging pivots in modern political history to shift focus away from its own failures, blaming the disaster on a prominent Korean businessman, his family, and the Evangelical Baptist Church.
The Park Administration used every lever of government, including the military and the police, to direct the public’s attention from itself. It even harassed and investigated loved ones of the children who died in the sinking, committing human rights violations to intimidate the families and stop them from seeking answers. The Social Disasters Commission, in its final report, found that by doing so the government had committed state crimes. Yet the families never relented, and their Candlelight Protests eventually contributed to the fall of the administration. This was just one of the numerous changes to Korean society that resulted from the sinking.
This website has been produced by the Evangelical Baptist Church. It seeks to lay out key facts related to the tragedy, transparently and with citations to reputable sources, so that long-held errors and omissions in the Korean and international media can be corrected. A special press adjudication panel in Korea has required that hundreds of stories in the South Korean media about the Sewol incident and its aftermath include a lengthy statement correcting the errors. (This statement is located at the bottom of this story, and can also be read here.) We’ve created this website because such changes have not been made in the vast-majority of stories published and broadcast elsewhere in the world.