The Korea Herald


State guilty of spying on bereaved Sewol families: court

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : Jan. 12, 2023 - 15:51

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Bereaved families of Sewol ferry disaster in 2014 speak to reporters after an appellate court ruling on Thursday. (Yonhap) Bereaved families of Sewol ferry disaster in 2014 speak to reporters after an appellate court ruling on Thursday. (Yonhap)

An appellate court on Thursday found the South Korean state partially guilty of secondary victimization of Sewol ferry victims' bereaved families.

The Seoul High Court ordered the government and now-defunct Sewol ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine to pay over a combined 88 billion won ($70.6 million) to people who lost their loved ones in the 2014 ferry sinking.

The size of the compensation went up by 15.7 billion won compared with the previous ruling.

This includes 1.06 billion won in the state's nonpatrimonial damages that stem from the Defense Security Command's attempts at spying on the victims' bereaved families, which the court judged to be "secondary victimization." The DSC has since been rebranded as the Defense Security Support Command.

The court recognized that "officials of the DSC had violated people's personal privacy by conducting surveillance of the bereaved families to obtain their personally identifiable information and political affiliation, activities that have nothing to do with their duties," read the ruling.

The size of compensation will vary individually depending on the claimants’ relationship with the victims, according to the court ruling.

This was the latest development of the suit filed against the state and the ferry operator in 2015. The bereaved families had rejected the government's tentative plan to dole out 400 million won each to compensate for the losses.

A district court in 2018 ordered the state and the Sewol ferry operator to pay 72.3 billion won in compensation to 355 family members of 118 victims.

Of the 355 plaintiffs, 228 appealed the 2018 lower court’s ruling. The government also appealed.

The plaintiffs sought a combined 340 billion won in damages against the government and Sewol ferry operator at the appeals court, asking the court to recognize the emotional shock that they had suffered.

The appellate court proceedings had been paused due to an ongoing probe by a Special Investigation Committee on Social Disasters conducted by lawmakers. In January 2020, the committee revealed evidence that the state had spied on the families, which led to the conviction of military security service officials, including the latest in October 2022. In the latest convictions, two army reserve major generals were each sentenced to two years.

The appellate court trial resumed in 2021 after a three-year pause and concluded with Thursday's ruling.

Kim Jong-ki, who represents a steering committee of bereaved families, told reporters that the court’s ruling recognized the illegality of "suppressing bereaved families by labeling (families) as commies."

The sinking of the Sewol ferry left 304 dead or missing in April 2014 in the sea off the southeastern coast of Korea. Leniency in the state's disaster management during the former Park Geun-hye administration drew ire of the public, which ultimately led to Park’s impeachment.