South Korea cracking down on operator in Sewol ferry disaster; CEO arrested

Story highlights

The government is moving to revoke the ferry operator's business licenses

Cheonghaejin Marine Company operated the ferry that sank last month off the South Korean coast

Authorities have arrested the company's chief executive; he faces charges including causing death by negligence

Searchers have recovered 269 bodies from the sunken ferry; another 35 people remain missing

Seoul, South Korea CNN  — 

South Korean authorities are cracking down on the company that operated the passenger ferry that sank last month, a disaster that killed hundreds of people and shocked the nation.

The chief executive of Cheonghaejin Marine Company, the ferry operator, was arrested Thursday and is facing charges including causing death by negligence, said Yang Joong-jin, a senior prosecutor in the investigation.

At the same time, the government has begun to take steps to revoke the company’s business licenses, the the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said.

The planned measures are aimed at taking away the licenses of the company for all its routes, including the one on which the Sewol passenger ferry sank, leaving more than 260 people dead and dozens still missing.

Most of the dead and missing are students, all from the same high school, who were taking the ferry to the resort island of Jeju for a field trip.

The stunning loss of life has shaken South Korea, raising troubling questions about safety standards and government oversight of businesses. President Park Geun-hye has apologized over the government’s handling of the disaster and pledged to overhaul safety systems to try to prevent accidents in the future.

Prosecutor: CEO arrested, charged in South Korea ferry disaster

Excess cargo blamed

Kim Han-sik, the chief executive officer of Cheonghaejin Marine, was arrested in connection with allegations that excessive cargo a played a role in the April 16 sinking, Yang said.

Investigators have said the amount of cargo, more than double the ferry’s limit, and the failure to tie it down properly was partly responsible for the sinking of the Sewol, which was carrying 476 passengers and crew.

Speaking to reporters Thursday with his face covered, Kim apologized for the disaster.

“Victims of Sewol ferry and their bereaved families, I am sorry, I am sorry. I have committed crime that can only be paid back with my life,” he said in comments broadcast on South Korean broadcaster YTN.

Several other of the company’s employees have been indicted in the case, along with the ship’s captain and more than a dozen crew members. Authorities have searched the company’s offices as part of the criminal investigation.

‘Serious problems’

The government, meanwhile, plans to take away the company’s licenses for all its routes, including the one on which the Sewol sank, said Nam Jae-heon, an official at the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.

“Normally, we would cancel route by route, but in this case of Chonghaejin Marine Co., it is not just the route that is problem … there are serious problems with firm’s entire business practices,” Nam said.

“We have decided not to wait for the investigation results from the prosecutor, as would have been the standard practice, but to go ahead with the revocation of the business licenses as soon as possible since there is enough evidence out there to support the revocation,” he said.

Chonghaejin Marine didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment from CNN.

At least 269 people died in the disaster, which happened while the ferry was traveling from Incheon to Jeju, off South Korea’s southwestern coast. Thirty-five people still are unaccounted for, according to the country’s coast guard.

Search continues

Divers are still searching the submerged vessel for the missing people, braving frigid waters, strong currents and corridors clogged with debris. Last week, one of the divers died while working to recover bodies.

The ill-fated voyage trip wasn’t the first time the ferry had an excess cargo, a joint investigation team told reporters earlier this week.

Since the Sewol began the Incheon-Jeju route in March 2013, the ferry carried excess cargo 139 times, investigators said.

Cheonghaejin Marine earned an extra 62 million South Korean won ($62,000) for the excess cargo on the April 16 voyage, and nearly 3 billion South Korean won ($2.9 million) in extra profit for all of the excess cargo that the ferry carried since March 2013, investigators said.

Journalist Stella Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea; Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from London