Ferry Disaster Deals a Blow to Korean Confidence

Politics Society

An Ill-Timed Visit

US President Barack Obama visited South Korea on April 25 and 26, immediately after his two-night, three-day state visit to Japan. But the timing of his trip to Seoul could hardly have been worse. He arrived not long after the tragic capsizing of a Korean ferry, the Sewol, in the Yellow Sea off the southwest Korean coast. Obama touched down in Seoul to find President Park Geun-hye and her fellow citizens immersed in a mood of national mourning.

One key aim of Obama’s fourth visit to Korea was to reaffirm the countries’ alliance in the face of the rising tensions in Northeast Asia resulting from the situation in North Korea and the growing friction between Japan and South Korea, among other factors. But the visit, it turned out, did not create much of a stir among the Korean media or public, despite Obama’s references to the “comfort women” issue and the US stance regarding North Korea. The South Koreans were too caught up in their own deep internal crisis to pay much mind to those other issues.  

The Republic of Korea, which has been making steady progress up to the ranks of the advanced nations, has fallen into a collective crisis as a result of the ferry accident. The ship was carrying 476 passengers, of whom 325 were high-school students, and only 174 of the passengers managed to survive. Clearly, this is a tragedy of major proportions, and since its occurrence the Korean media has discussed little else. It is easy to comprehend the depths of the sorrow in the country when you realize that the vast majority of victims were still in high school. This calamity that claimed the lives of so many innocent victims is reminiscent of the 1995 collapse of the Sampoong Department Store in Seoul, which resulted in 508 dead or missing. But the public reaction to the recent ferry sinking was a veritable panic, a sort of confused psychological state brought about by the sudden outbreak of anxiety and stress.

“Wasn’t Supposed to Happen Here”

The question of why the public has reacted in the way it has to the disaster has triggered lively discussions among Korean intellectuals. Initially, their commentary mainly showered blame on the crew members who abandoned the ship without adequately implementing life-saving measures. The police and public prosecutors concentrated their own investigative powers to channel public anger in that direction, and President Park herself said that the actions of these crew members were “tantamount to murder.” 

Commentators with a fondness for neat comparisons have contrasted the disaster to the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, speculating on what might have happened if the ferry captain had tried to shout encouragement to his crew as Edward John Smith had done to his own crew on the Titanic by shouting, “Be British, boys, be British!” There was no call of “Be Korean!” on the Sewol, but I have an uncomfortable feeling, although this is no place for sarcasm, that the crew’s reaction was, in some respects, quite Korean.

The Korean passenger ferry Sewol capsized off the island of Jindo on April 16 (photograph courtesy of Newscom/Aflo).

In the weeks since the ferry sinking, there have been all sorts of analyses of the disaster and speculative hindsight. We have learned that the Sewol was purchased from a Japanese ferry operator after the vessel had been retired from service. Critics have pointed to the responsibility of the Korean operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co., for the shortsighted decision to add extra passenger cabins and cargo space. Other culprits included the government regulators of marine vessels, who often parachute into their government positions after holding executive posts in the shipping industry. And there has also been loud criticism of the industry for being a “shipping mafia” made up of graduates from certain universities specializing in marine science and technology or fisheries.

The foreign media, in covering the story, have said that Korea did not learn the lessons from similar disasters that occurred in the past. But this is a view that raises my own ire and frustration, as someone who was born in Korea in the 1950s and has continued to focus on the country since moving overseas as a young adult. It seems incorrect—and cowardly, to be frank—to only focus on the technical aspects of the accident by advancing the idea that disaster might have been averted had the management not been so incompetent.

The “technical failure” view of the disaster may bring some solace to the grieving hearts of the Korean people. That is to say, it is a view with the implicit message that the ferry disaster does not raise any fundamental questions about the Republic of Korea—a country said to have joined the ranks of the advanced nations. This outlook helps Koreans put their sorrow and shame behind them, and set their sights on the future instead. Indeed, an expression that was on the lips of many of the family members of the victims was, “This wasn’t supposed to happen in Korea.”

The Greed Underlying the Accident

But is this view valid? When an accident occurs in South Korea, people repeat the saying about the need to “mend the farm door after the cow got away.” And we can see how, after the accident, the Korean prime minister tendered his resignation, promises were made to introduce Korea’s much-vaunted IT prowess to upgrade the passenger terminals at its harbors, and the National Assembly members who had been blocking laws for partisan reasons began their stampede to promise legislation that would improve public welfare. The mentality that underlies such actions is that the ferry sinking was just a random accident, rather than something reflecting the essence of contemporary Korean society. It’s a sort of self-justification. And this is why Koreans have the notion that such an accident “wasn’t supposed to happen” in their country.

But that outlook is an illusion. I would go so far as to say that the disaster has shed light on the very bedrock of Korean society. Granted, the owner of the Sewol is the clear culprit for buying an old vessel and expanding its capacity, but that sort of approach has been the formula for economic growth in Korea. Back in the mid-1970s, the president of Hyundai Construction, a venture-capital firm at the time that went on to become today’s global giant, the Hyundai Group, decided to ignore recommended shipping methods and use barges to ship huge steel beams from Korea to the Saudi port of Jubail, where the firm was involved in a construction project. Koreans at the time were proud of this fact, though. This “heroic” deed flew in the face of the procedures outlined in safety regulations and technical manuals, but the attitude was “all’s well that ends well.”

This is the precisely the attitude that led to the ferry capsizing. In this sense, the conditions were generally in place for any one of many Korean passenger ships, not only the Sewol, to meet with a disaster of a similar scale. Once those conditions were in place, anything could have triggered a major disaster. The preconditions were not just the poorly paid sailors and officers and the useless lifeboats, but the fact that a ship carrying three times its maximum load cannot regain its balance once lost.

The crux of the conditions necessary for the disaster was not simply the technical matters, but a question of greed. The greed of a few people associated with the Sewol led them to illegally “improve” the vessel, and in the rush to satisfy that greed, many lives were lost at sea. It was the sort of accident that was quite likely to occur in South Korea.

Two Sides of Korean Society

One of the many things that exists in Japan to a greater extent than in Korea is the notion of learning from failure. In terms of the relationship between Japan and Korea, you might say that Japan has been the “winner,” historically speaking, and Korea has been on the losing end. Yet if you set foot in one of the “victor’s” bookstores you will find titles related to the study of past failures; whereas in the bookstores of the losing side such titles are nowhere to be seen. This seems to stem from the inferiority complex and antipathy that Koreans have about the idea of defeat. Instead of dwelling on a national history full of defeats, these people living on a rugged peninsula have chosen a mode of life that is focused on moving forward in pursuit of their ambitions. In other words, the focus is on results, rather than the process. The outlook is reflected in the way Korean parents lecture their children by saying, “Succeed at any cost if you don’t like the way things are now.”  

Some Japanese scholars who have studied this cultural outlook have said that the Korean adverb pali-pali (quickly!) is characteristic of the people and their actions. But this is a sort of half-truth. That adverb only deals with the surface of an action or situation, not its inner logic. The adverb that addresses the logical aspect is dae-chung, dae-chung. The term means doing something in an “adequate” or “perfunctory” way. This approach that some Koreans take of seeking to get ahead by doing just enough to satisfy other people, in a dae-chung, dae-chung way led the Korean journalist Kim Dae-jung, who writes for the Chosun Ilbo, to say that “although [Koreans] are living physically in a modern way, their thoughts and actions remain premodern.”

I would say that that the incongruity between those two sides reflects a conflict between two aspects of Korean culture. The crew members of the Sewol, who were all arrested along with the captain, were ordinary members of Korean society, not some gang of monsters. Their family members might include employees of world-class companies like Samsung Electronics, or a sister as wonderful as the figure skater Kim Yuna. Their crime of turning a blind eye to the rules and abandoning a sense of professionalism, as well as their inexperience and cowardice, was brought into stark relief by the accident, but their dae-chung, dae-chung attitude is also seen in the actions of Korean elites, albeit in a more polished form.

The Emotional Shock of the Disaster

In viewing this situation, a social scientist well-known in Korea, Song Ho-geun, said that it made him feel “numb from the sense of how shameful and ignoble” it was. But what exactly is the shameful part, and who is the shameful party, with regard to the capsized ferry and lives lost as a result? The sense of shame might be related to the fact that via the Internet the world became vividly aware of the “backwardness” that had been concealed as Korea pursued its dream of joining the ranks of advanced nations. To borrow an English expression, Koreans felt bewildered, ashamed at the moment they were “caught with their pants down.” They were left with anger that had no outlet.

According to Song, there is “no way that Koreans could avoid some real soul-searching this time around.” And in fact, President Park announced on April 30, after expressing her profound apologies, a valiant decision to “remodel the country from square one.” But it seems unlikely that Korean society as a whole is truly intent on carrying out that self-reformation.

It turns out, incidentally, that the actual owner of the Sewol is a rather bizarre character. Korean prosecutors have identified a man named Yoo Byung-eun as the owner of the ferry operated by Chonghaejin Marine. In 1962, Yoo founded Evangelical Baptist Church, also known as the Salvation sect. In 1987, the group became the focus of public attention when 32 of its members died in a mass suicide. The sect has benefited from massive monetary contributions from its followers, said to number around 200,000. After the group was involved subsequently in frequent scandals, it was expelled from the ranks of other Christian organizations in Korea as a heretical organization. But Yoo still managed, as the group’s self-proclaimed “Minister,” to raise huge sums of money and form an international business group together with his son. Korean prosecutors are undertaking a frantic investigation to learn more about these undertakings.

Most Koreans assume that the name of the Sewol is derived from Chinese characters meaning the “passage of time,” but in fact they mean “transcendence of the everyday world.” And it is a terrible irony that this ship, which capsized because of the corruption of the real world, would transport so many innocent passengers to their death. 

(Original article in Japanese posted on April 30.)

South Korea accident Obama Sewol ferry shipwreck maritime