The sinking of the Sewol passenger ferry on April 16 this year shook South Korea to its very core.
On the surface, the political, economic, and social impacts of the accident seem quite clear. Politically speaking, Korea has seen a crisis of confidence in its government rooted in the clumsy handling of the accident and its aftermath, as well as fresh doubts about the nation’s capacity for crisis management. In terms of economics, attention is now focused on the pursuit of profit at the cost of safety and the harmful collusion between business and regulatory agencies. Korean society has been plunged into mourning for the young lives lost during their school trip, and there remains explosive anger at those responsible for the Sewol disaster.
All these elements combined to form a maelstrom of criticism of the Korean government, which in turn resulted in repeated apologies by President Park Geun-hye, the resignations offered by Prime Minister Jung Hong-won and other key figures, and a reorganization of the government organs with responsibility for maritime safety and other related areas. People across the country entered a somber mood of restraint; there were murmurings about political instability. Korea was truly in a crisis situation, in the sense that it was approaching a crucial turning point.
Political and Social Shortcomings Exposed
Here we must consider the true problem facing South Korea—not the superficial phenomena described above, but the deeper issues that underlie them all. The April 16 crisis has cast doubt on the political and economic arc the nation has traced so far—perhaps not indicating that the course itself was mistaken, but rather that it has been marked by serious shortcomings.
Korea is generally viewed as a mature society that stands among the leading industrialized nations of the world. Today, however, we hear concerns voiced about Korea’s very national character. And these are not rooted in the social and political flaws that lie in the background to the Sewol accident but are instead related to the reaction of Korean society to the accident, which in ways has seemed both excessive and immature. We have seen the frenzied search for culpable parties in the accident, the apologies and resignations that have constituted the political response, and above all, the societal trend of channeling sadness and mourning into rage to fling against those held responsible. While we can understand all of these on an emotional level, it is hard not to see them as indicators of insufficient political and social development in the country as well.
Three Factors for Successful Recovery
South Korea rebounded brilliantly from the 1997–98 East Asian financial crisis, often called the “IMF Crisis” in Korea. There were at least three key factors behind this success. First was the presence of the IMF and other external actors placing pressure on Korea to undertake reforms. Second was cooperative measures and financial aid from Japan and other friendly nations. And third was the new administration of Kim Dae-jung, which took power in 1998 with great determination to maintain the course of liberal democracy in Korea.
Today, we are looking at a Korean state that lacks all of these three factors. Korea feels no external pressure to change, its relations with Japan are tense, and its government is conservative to the core.
April 16 is the birthday of the great comic actor Charlie Chaplin. But in Korea it is no longer a day for comedy, and the country must not allow the great tragedy that befell it, taking so many lives, to devolve into political farce. What is important now is not so much to punish those responsible for the accident as to adhere to the rule of law, including the protection of the human rights of the accused. The Korean people must show calmness and humility as they work to dismantle the collusive political structures now in place and ruminate on the historical significance of the Sewol accident.
(Originally published in Japanese on May 28, 2014. Banner photo: Mourners visit a memorial to the Sewol disaster victims. © Jiji Press.)
Invited professor, Aoyama Gakuin University; secretary general, Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee. Born in 1938. Graduated from the Law Faculty at the University of Tokyo and the Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge. Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1962, serving as director general of the Cultural Affairs Department and of the Economic Affairs Bureau, deputy minister for foreign affairs, and ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea, and France. President of the Japan Foundation from October 2003 to September 2011. His works include Gurōbarizumu e no hangyaku (Rebellion Against Globalism; 2004).