S Korean police widen probe into boot camp deaths

The body of one of the five teens is recovered yesterday morning at a beach in Taean County, South Chungcheong. Photo: Koreajoongangdaily

SOUTH KOREA - The deaths of five students at a private seaside boot camp Thursday have ignited debate over lax safety and flawed operations of military-style boot camps for young people.

Police were widening their probe into the accident in Taean, South Chungcheong Province in which the high-school students drowned after they followed trainers’ orders to take off their life jackets and go into the sea.

Police said only six out of 12 instructors had lifeguard licenses, and eight had sea sports licenses. Some were even hired just last month as part-time workers for the peak summer season.The camp, which uses Marine Corps, in its name was found to have no links with the armed forces and was not authorized by the government.

Causing further controversy, witnesses said Lee Sang-kyu, the principal of the victims’ school, was drinking with the members of a parent-teacher association at a nearby restaurant even after he was notified of the accident.

The victims’ relatives claimed they smelled alcohol on the principal when they arrived at the scene about three hours after the tragedy.

Lee offered to step down Sunday.

The school has sued the owner of a youth hostel the students were staying in for negligence. Police said the owner, surnamed Kim, outsourced the program to a small travel agency last year.

“The organization in charge carelessly hired unqualified instructors and ordered the students to go into the water without life jackets,” the school officials wrote in its bill of indictment.

“We ask for the heaviest possible punishment to be handed out.”

The victims’ families said they were postponing the students’ funerals until the people involved were severely punished and all private boot camps were banned.

The school’s 198 students participated in the three-day training camp from Wednesday.

Two instructors, who were leading a group of 80 students on the second day, ordered them enter the sea without life jackets.

Minutes after entering the water at around 5:10 p.m., 23 students were swept up by a strong current and five went missing.

“The camp instructors called the coast guard at around 5:34 p.m., 24 minutes after the accident, during which they were looking for the kids themselves,” said Hwang Joon-hyun, head of the West Regional Headquarters Korea Coast Guard.

Police deployed four helicopters, 29 patrol ships and 869 rescuers and found bodies of all five students the next day near a tidal channel 1 kilometer off the Taean cost.