The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office on Monday launched a special investigation unit to probe allegations surrounding the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014.
During a press briefing at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, the unit said it is “committed to making its probe so thorough that it will be the last one to be conducted into the Sewol sinking.”
The unit will take on investigations conducted by a provisional state commission formed in January 2015 with a fact-finding mission on the Sewol case.
This is the prosecution’s first organized effort concerning the disaster from over five years ago.
On April 16, 2014, the 6,825-ton ferry with a passenger capacity of 921 sank off the coast of South Jeolla Province en route to Jeju Island, killing over 300 people, mostly children.
The 18-member prosecution unit is headed by Lim Gwan-hyeok, who served as chief of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office headquarters, dedicated to white-collar crimes by society’s elite during the Park Geun-hye administration.
One of the most high-profile cases led by Lim is the 2015 probe into corruption allegations surrounding former President Lee Myung-bak’s 26 trillion-won diplomacy project.
Cho Dae-ho, a counsel for human rights affairs at the top prosecutors’ office, is in charge of carrying out the unit’s investigations.
The unit’s officials were appointed Nov. 6 by Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl.
Kim Kwang-bae, a representative from Sewol Families for Truth and a Safer Society, told The Korea Herald that close communication between the families of the victims and the investigative unit is most important.
“We understand there are matters of confidentiality over the course of the investigation, but the probe should not be carried out single-handedly (by the prosecutor unit), and the (victims’) families should have some involvement,” he said.
The unit said a consultative body for facilitating communication among relevant groups, including a union of victims’ family members, would also be set up.
The prosecution is expected to push the scope of investigation.
A lawyer representing the families of the Sewol victims, Oh Min-ae, told The Korea Herald the prosecution’s unit “could go above and beyond the inquiry implemented thus far, as the prosecution has special jurisdiction to enforce investigations.”
Oh said the victims’ family members have “come a long way to see the unit’s establishment” and that they hoped the prosecutors would “revisit suspicions at every stage of the incident, from the sinking to the follow-up responses of the authorities at the time to probes that have ensued since.”
The reinvestigation might hamper the main opposition Liberty Korea Party’s prospects in the upcoming general election, as it targets major conservative figures.
Last week, the victims’ family union said it would report to prosecutors 112 former government officials, investigative authorities and emergency dispatchers suspected of responsibility in the rescue failure and obstruction of justice.
The list includes then-President Park and main opposition Liberty Korea Party Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn, who served as justice minister in Park’s Cabinet and stands as a prospective conservative presidential candidate.
Addressing the concerns, the prosecutors downplayed speculations that the probe’s launch is politically motivated.
“As the prosecutor general has said, the need for the prosecution’s take on the case has been brought up multiple times,” Lim said. “There are no other considerations than that of the pursuit of truth.”