A semi-submersible ship carrying the wreck of the Sewol ferry off the southwestern island of Jindo. PHOTO: AFP/SOUTH KOREAN MARITIME MINISTRY
A semi-submersible ship carrying the wreck of the Sewol ferry off the southwestern island of Jindo. Photo: AFP/ South Korean Maritime Ministry

A documentary film has presented troubling new evidence of a conspiracy behind the deadly 2014 sinking of the ferry Sewol off South Korea’s southwestern coast – but refrains from addressing who could have been behind it, or what the motive could have been.

Filmmakers Kim Ji-young (right) and Kim Ou-joon at the preview screening of ‘Intention.’ Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

“We put aside hyoptheses and relied only on data,” said Kim Ou-joon, one of the filmmakers, at a preview screening on Thursday, its release day. “We do not believe it was a simple mistake; it was not an accident,” he added.

Entitled “Geu Nal, Bada” (literally, “That Day, at Sea”) in Korean, and “Intention” in English, the film is a collaboration between documentary-maker Kim Ji-young and investigative journalist Kim Ou-joon, no relation. Funded by crowd-sourcing, it took four years to produce. Noted Korean actor Jung Woo-sung offered his services, free, for the voice-over.

The captain gave no order to abandon ship, while a panicky purser ordered passengers to remain below

The Sewol went down on April 16, 2014, when it was en route from the port of Incheon to Jeju Island, killing 304 of the 476 passengers and crew on board – mainly teenagers on a high school trip – even though the vessel took nearly an hour to sink, the sea was calm and there was abundant shipping in the area.

The captain, one of the first rescued, gave no order to abandon ship, while a panicky purser ordered passengers, over the ferry’s PA system, to remain below, rather than assemble topside, where they could have been rescued. As a result, most victims were trapped below decks when water rushed in and the vessel capsized.

The captain and purser were later jailed. Blame shifted to the Coast Guard, for what was seen as a botched rescue, and to then-President Park Geun-hye, for her failure of leadership. Many believed that Park, noticeably absent, was undergoing plastic surgery as the crisis unfolded.

Sewol Poster
The poster for the new film. Photo: Supplied

Simmering anger over the Sewol was one motivation behind massive demonstrations in 2016 that led to Park’s impeachment and subsequent trial on multiple charges. As of last Friday’s verdict, she is serving a 24-year jail sentence.

Elaborate cover-up of a deliberate sinking?

The film does not address any of these issues. Instead, in its two hour-plus running time, it makes two key contentions.

The first is that the Automatic Identity System (AIS) data related to the Sewol’s course and position was altered, and some CCTV footage disappeared. Marshaling a mass of evidence – International Telecommunications Union signals, data from decoding software, radar and map plots of the first ship to arrive on the scene and computer reconstructions of what survivors could see from their positions aboard on the day – the film makes a convincing case that the Sewol’s AIS data was exhaustively tampered with by an unknown party.

The film concludes that the vessel’s real course was slightly, but significantly, different from what was made public.

Its second contention is about the cause of the sinking. Official probes by prosecutors and a special investigatory body found a combination of factors responsible: the Sewol, after a refit, may have been top-heavy, and it was overloaded with unsecured cargo.

When the vessel made a sharper-than-necessary turn at the hands of an inexperienced helmswoman, the cargo shifted. As a result, the ferry heeled over, its list became irreversible and it sank.

They surmise that the Sewol dropped its port anchor, which dragged along the seabed and caused the vessel to heel over

In plotting what they insist was the Sewol’s real course, the filmmakers discovered that it exactly mirrored the underwater topography of the island off which the ferry foundered.

Black box film recovered from cars in the sunken ferry showed the sudden list could not have been caused by cargo shift. This led the filmmakers to assume that it sank due to external forces. They surmise that the Sewol dropped its port anchor, which dragged along the seabed and caused the vessel to heel over disastrously; the anchor was then hauled back up – presumably to hide evidence of a plot – before the vessel sank.

As evidence, the film offers photographs of the anchor taken before the Sewol left Incheon – black, against the white hull – and shots taken during the sinking, which appear to show it corroded or streaked. They sought to examine the anchors when the hulk was raised in March 2017, but found they had been cut away prior to the salvage operation.

However, the film offers no testimonials of survivors who heard the anchor chain rattling down or up, a noisy affair, nor any evidence that anyone aboard had released it.

Conspiracy theories are back on the table

Still, if the filmmakers are correct – and with the film going public next week, it looks set to ignite a controversy – their unvoiced conclusion is inescapable. Someone, or some agency, was trying to sink the Sewol. And someone, or some agency, went to extraordinary lengths to cover their tracks.

“We have an idea of why this was done, but decided not to put that in the film,” said Kim Ou-joon, refusing to be drawn further on the issue. “Finding the truth is the job of the government, not us.”

“The question of ‘why’ will hopefully put enough pressure on the government to open an investigation,” added Kim Ji-young.

Asked about the film’s English title, Kim, the journalist, said: “We knew we could not show exactly what happened … but [because of the manipulated data] we know somebody had some sort of intention.”

Some went off the deep end: The sinking was a mass human sacrifice plotted by Park crony Choi Soon-sil

Many Koreans will have their own opinions. In the wake of the tragedy, the country was rife with conspiracy theories that ranged from the mildly credible to the utterly bizarre.

Some suggested a financial motive: The shipping company wanted a sinking in order to profit from the insurance payout. Others suggested a strategic error, surmising that the vessel foundered following a collision with a US or South Korean submarine.

And some went off the deep end: The sinking of the Sewol was a mass human sacrifice plotted by Park crony Choi Soon-sil, having inherited other-worldly powers from her late father, who ran a quasi-spiritual, quasi-Christian sect.

No evidence to prove any of these theories has, as yet, surfaced.