Just a Slap on the Wrist
Just a Slap on the Wrist
  • Reporter Song Sung-chan
  • 승인 2019.04.24 13:12
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▲Seagrand and Gwangan Bridge after collision / Google
▲Seagrand and Gwangan Bridge after collision / Google


On Feb. 29, an unexpected crisis occurred at the Gwangan Bridge in Busan that connects Haeundae-gu to Suyeong-gu. The Gwangan Bridge is the second longest bridge in Korea after the Incheon Bridge and is 7,420 meters long. The bridge is constructed so that it can withstand 45 m/s speed typhoons and seven meters high waves and is rated as a one in aseismic design. Such a sturdy bridge was damaged by a 6,000 ton-container ship, named the Seagrand, steered by a drunk Russian captain. Although the impact partially damaged the bridge structure, the Busan Coast Guard (BCG) reported that there were no human casualties on the bridge or any marine pollution through an oil spill.

The Seagrand departed Busan harbor and, on its way, struck three ships. When the Vessel Traffic Service Center (VTSC) contacted Seagrand to check whether there was a crash with other ships, the captain told his crew to say nothing about the crash and lied to the VTSC. Then the captain accelerated to escape the crash site, lost control of the Seagrand turning right and struck the Gwangan Bridge. Because of the crash with the ship, two yachts and a barge were damaged, and three sailors on the yachts were injured. The BCG ordered Seagrand to shut down the engine after the crash and tested the captain for his blood alcohol level. The Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) was 0.086%, which is way above the BAC for the license revocation. The BCG arrested the captain without a warrant on suspicion of DUI (Driving Under the Influence).

After the BAC test, the captain denied that he was driving under the influence of alcohol and that he had a sip of Hennessy after the crash to alleviate the cardiodynia that he had because of the stress from the impact. However, the BCG brushed away his false claim by doing an inverse operation based on the captain’s physical condition and his BAC at that time to find the approximate time of drinking and concluded that the captain consumed alcohol before the ship sailed. Later the CCTV inside the wheelhouse was pound to have the recording of the captain’s alcohol consumption. The court then issued an arrest warrant under the grounds that the captain is denying the fact that he was navigating after drinking and that he may possibly try to evade arrest.

This accident has raised questions regarding the lightweight punishment of maritime law. According to the Maritime Traffic Safety Act (MTSA), a person who operates navigation equipment of 5t or heavier while under the BAC higher than 0.03% faces either imprisonment of up to three years or a fine under 30 million KRW. This law, albeit only a slap on the wrist itself, is only the surface of the controversy as another law states that the captain must be charged with a DUI with a BAC of 0.03% at least three times in the span of five years for his license to be revoked; the variance in the BAC is not a variable in the license revocation criteria, meaning that the captain who had a BAC of 0.08% or higher is treated the same as the captain who had BAC of 0.03%. 

Comparing such MTSA to the overland traffic laws, the MTSA has a long way to go. In the Road Traffic Act, the driver with a BAC higher than 0.05% gets his license suspended, and the driver with a BAC higher than 0.08% is revoked of his license the first time he is discovered. However, in the MTSA, the captain must be charged three times for his license to be revoked whether or not the captain is far more intoxicated than the minimum BAC. Also, because the license is issued from the country of origin of the captain, Korea does not have jurisdiction over the revocation of a foreign national’s license directly. What it means is that although the Russian captain of the Seagrand destroyed three yachts, damaged one of Korea’s most valuable bridges, placed citizens and the ocean in danger, the captain does not lose his license and will receive only minimal punishment.

As a response to the MTSA in question, the Gunsan Coast Guard claimed on April. 12 that it will develop a safer maritime transportation environment by expanding the scope of crackdowns of DUI’s from domestic and foreign freighters to passenger ships and large vessels. The coast guard mentioned that it will be utilizing the Information Management System in Maritime and Ports and the Ferry Operations Management System for port entries and departures, and will also be conducting frequent crackdowns on drunk drivers. Regarding foreign vessels, the coast guard will be conducting crackdowns through the cooperation with Gunsan Customs and related authorities with jurisdiction, considering the custom, immigration, and quarantine.