Sewol Facts

A Resource for Journalists

Sewol Investigation Timeline

The sinking of the MV Sewol traumatized Korea and baffled the world – how could a ferry simply turn over and sink in calm seas? Numerous investigations have failed to determine what caused the accident, even as crew members and the Coast Guard were found liable for their responses. Here is a timeline of the investigations, and other key dates.      

April 16


The Sewol sinks while transiting the Maenggol Channel off the southwestern coast of Korea. The ship is operated by Chonghaejin Marine Co. Of the 476 passengers, 304 die – including 250 high school students. The Korean Coast Guard fails to save most of the passengers although the ship takes hours to sink. Offers of foreign aid are rebuffed during those crucial hours.

April 28


Coast Guard Capt. Kim Gyeong-il tells the media there were "several evacuation broadcasts" to passengers on the sinking ship.

May 21

An arrest warrant is issued for Yoo Byung-eun, a semi-retired businessman with previous ties to Chonghaejin Marine, after he failed to appear on an arrest warrant on embezzlement charges. He is not charged in connection with the sinking.

June 11

Hundreds of police officers storm property belonging to the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea seeking Yoo.

June 12


A badly decomposed body is discovered in a plum orchard in Suncheon, 186 miles south of Seoul.

July 20


The body is identified as that of Yoo Byung-eun.

July 21


The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in Korea releases what it calls an “interim report.” The sinking is blamed on “negligence and corruption.”

Sewol Sinking
August 14


Coast Guard Capt. Kim Gyeung-il admits that there were no broadcasts instructing passengers to leave the Sewol.

October 6


The final report from the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office tentatively blames “unseaworthiness as a result of modifications,” drainage of ballast water and a steering error as likely causes. No definitive determination of the cause is made.

November 11


The Sewol’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, is sentenced to 36 years in prison for abandoning the ship and other errors. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty. Thirteen other crew members receive shorter sentences.

November 19


The National Assembly enacts the Sewol Ferry Special Law and the Act on Regulation of Punishment of Criminal Proceeds Concealment – the so-called “Yoo Byung-eun Law.” It permits the South Korean government to subrogate the claims of the Sewol victims and sue private persons (such as Yoo Byung-eun) allegedly at fault for the sinking – even though the cause of the sinking has never been determined.

December 29


The Korean Maritime Tribunal announces the results of their investigation report, which supports the earlier report from the prosecutors’ office.

Sewol Courtroom
January 1


The Sewol Special Act is ratified. It allows non-family members or third parties to be subject to legal punishment, including seizure of property, if they are found to have helped business owners gain profits through malpractice.

March 5


As the families of the victims, growing increasingly frustrated, demand to know why the ship sank, the Sewol Special Investigation Committee is formed to complete a more extensive investigation.

Sewol Raised
April 22


The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries announces plans to salvage the Sewol, a measure considered crucial to understanding the cause of the sinking.

November 12


The Supreme Court surmises that the Sewol may have sunk because of engine failure rather than a steering error.

Sewol Courtroom
November 27


Capt. Kim Gyeong-il, who falsely claimed an evacuation order was given, is sentenced to three years in prison for negligence and manslaughter.

June 29

Hankyoreh reports that the Sewol had been carrying 278 tons of iron bars meant for the Jeju military base, and that the ferry’s sailing schedule may have been adjusted due to its government work.

September 30


The Park Geun-hye Administration disbands the Sewol Special Investigation Committee. Critics claim this is done to prevent the completion of a report that will reflect badly on the administration.

December 9


The National Assembly approves the impeachment of President Park.

Park Arrested
March 10


The Korean Constitutional Court removes President Park from office.

March 23


The rusted, badly decayed wreck of the Sewol is raised.

March 28


An eight-member panel, appointed by the new Moon Jae-in administration, re-opens the case. Because this is the first time the wreck itself can be examined, this becomes known as “The Hull Investigation.”

November 24


The Sisa Journal reports that according to Daehan Ship Design’s stability calculations, the Sewol had a maximum capacity of 2272 tons of cargo, not 987 as previously claimed. This would mean she was not overloaded when she sank.

Social Disasters Commission

The government forms the Special Investigation Commission on Social Disasters to re-investigate both the Sewol and a previous tragedy, the deaths of 100 people due to a dangerous disinfectant. The administration saw these two incidents as linked by a thread of greed and safety shortcuts made by corporations.

July 2


The Ministry of National Defense announces that the military’s intelligence arm, the Defense Security Command (DSC), conducted surveillance and intimidation of bereaved loved ones of Sewol victims.

August 6

“The Hull Investigation” panel concludes the cause of the accident cannot be determined. External factors, such as collision with a submarine or other unknown object, cannot be ruled out. The Western media does not report this finding.

November 6


A new “Sewol Special Prosecution Task Force” is launched “to probe what happened on the day-of, which measures were taken (by the authorities) and (other) details of related situations.”

January 19


The Sewol Special Prosecution Task Force announces the conclusion of its work. The task force focused on the government’s handling of the disaster and did not address the cause of the sinking, instead simply endorsed the 2014 prosecution’s findings.

February 15


All nine members of the Coast Guard charged in the failed rescue, including the head, are acquitted.

December 24


President Moon Jae-in announces special pardon for President Park Geun-hye; the Sewol victims’ families protest.


Organizations representing the victims of the Sewol disaster and their families demand that Yoon Suk-yeol, president elect, commits to efforts to uncover the truth of the sinking.


May 10

Yoon Suk-yeol presidency begins.

September 10, 2022

The Social Disasters Commission released its final report, failing to find a cause while suggesting that the government had committed "state crimes” against the families of the Sewol victims.


To this day, no definitive explanation for the sinking has been found.

No Known Cause

No Known Cause

Despite numerous investigations spanning years, the cause of the Sewol ferry sinking has never been determined. Questions about the government’s

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Primary Resources

A convenient repository of articles, essays, summaries of investigations, and other factual materials related to the sinking of the Sewol

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Abuse of Power

The Park Administration used South Korea’s Defense Security Command (DSC) or military intelligence service to spy, wiretap, surveil, and intimidate

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The Park Administration identified the Yoo Byung-eun family as the main culprit of the Sewol disaster soon after the accident.

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