SEOUL — A South Korean man has been arrested for spreading an Internet rumor that a U.S.-South Korean military drill caused a passenger ferry to sink off the country’s southwest coast, according to the National Police Agency.
The Sewol went down April 16, leaving about 300 people, mostly high school students, dead or missing.
The incident, which is being attributed to overloading and lax adherence to safety standards, has caused an outpouring of grief and anger at the government. President Park Geun-hye has offered several apologies.
Police have cracked down on government critics — as well as detractors of the victims — under a law that bans spreading false information that harms someone’s reputation.
An NPA official said 39 people, more than half of them teenagers, have been investigated for spreading rumors about the accident or defaming the dead, their families or the government. Three have been arrested, including a 50-year-old man, identified only by his last name of Shin, after the South Korean navy filed a complaint over an internet posting that said “the ferry Sewol sank because it deviated from its course due to the joint South Korea-U.S. exercise.”
Shin posted a photograph of a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine operating off South Korea’s west coast, and claimed the Sewol changed course to avoid the sub. Police said the photo was “randomly” taken from the internet and was unrelated to current U.S. military activity in the region.
Police said Shin altered and reposted navigation warnings posted by a government agency about a joint shooting exercise in the Yellow Sea in an effort to explain why the Sewol went off course. Shin said the drill took place on April 16 when it had been held a day earlier, police said.
Although Shin’s posting apparently did not mention a specific military exercise, the U.S. and South Korea wrapped up their annual Foal Eagle exercise last month, which includes a number of land- and sea-based drills.
The head of the NPA’s Cyber Investigation Team on Thursday called Shin’s claims “dangerous,” and said rumors about the ferry sinking are being taken seriously because they “could have lots of effects on rescue efforts or getting to the bottom of the cause of the accident.”
He said Shin could face jail time or a fine.
As of Friday afternoon, the bodies of 273 people had been recovered, and efforts continued to recover the remains of 31 still listed as missing, South Korea’s Yonhap News reported.
Two U.S. Navy diving and recovery experts are aboard South Korea’s amphibious ship Dokdo, serving as technical advisers.
The USNS Safeguard is also on station, with 15 divers acting as an advisory team to the South Korean Navy. The U.S. divers are not taking part in diving operations.
The Safeguard’s Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat is providing staging areas for supplies and a recompression chamber for South Korean divers, according to the U.S. Navy.