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The Sewol tragedy: for whom the bell tolls

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

South Korea is a nation in mourning, sharing the unfathomable grief of parents who lost their teenage children on what should have been a festive school trip. It is a nation experiencing collective depression, where many are tormented by the heartbreaking and endless grim news about the students who should never have died. Around the globe the Sewol ferry tragedy forces us to imagine what it must be like as a parent to have your drowned child’s mobile phone returned and to discover pictures and videos of their last fearful moments. One is at a loss for words thinking of the mothers and fathers who received final phone messages from their children expressing love and alarm as the ferry tilted further and further toward oblivion.

A bereaved nation is also angry, outraged and disillusioned. The nation failed its children and that inescapable conclusion is a damning indictment. How could such a thing have happened and who is to blame? Many Koreans express feelings of collective guilt, but they also want those in authority to take responsibility. The ferry disaster is a “Made in Korea” tragedy, including a botched coast guard rescue and recovery effort, dissemination of misleading information and signs of coverup. As a result, Prime Minister Chong Hong-won resigned in order to take responsibility, a gesture that attracted further scorn.

From the outside it is hard to understand why President Park Geun-hye is also being blamed, but the grief and rage has ignited the kindling of discontent in society and, like a wind-whipped forest fire raging out of control, it consumes everything in its unpredictable path. She is the fixer-in-chief in a nation where everyone suspects the fix is in. One South Korean told me that she is seen to be cold and aloof, not connecting with the people on a human level, desperately trying to contain the political fallout, but lacking empathy. She is not acting like the healer-in-chief for a traumatized nation in despair, perhaps expecting more than she can possibly deliver. It is a defining moment of her presidency and so far not a shining one. Redemption is still possible, but unlikely in a nation that is unforgiving of its “leaders” lapses. The long knives are out as opportunists seek political advantage.

While the investigations and prosecutions of those responsible unfold, the nation is in for a long and painful aftermath, a time for introspection. The Sewol ferry disaster holds up a mirror for South Koreans to gaze into and many don’t like what they see. What they see is the emptiness of affluence. In 2012, South Korea became only the seventh member of the “20-50 club” of nations with a per capita income of $20,000 with at last 50 million people, but that is of little solace to a people wondering what all the sacrifices have been for. Is this really the best we can do? South Korea has overcome the odds to achieve this economic success and many are proud of the global popularity of top brands and K-pop, but the Sewol saga of negligence shines a light into the darker corners of society. The gleaming image of a high-tech exporting superpower confronts a shabbier reality at home.

The ferry disaster is sparking introspection about what ails society, and raising questions about priorities. The Sewol took down more than a few comforting myths. The old nautical stand-bys “women and children first” and “a captain goes down with his ship” contrast with the Sewol’s captain being one of the first to abandon ship, prioritizing his own safety, while the students were told not to move, explaining why so many did not scramble to jump ship and needlessly drowned. Irresponsible actions and instructions from a poorly trained crew snuffed out so many young lives. It is appalling that most of the crew made it to safety while only 174 passengers of the total 476 survived. It turns out that some of the crew, including the captain, are members of a dubious cult and that the ferry company may be indirectly owned by it.

Loopholes in safety standards, a lack of a culture of safety, lax regulatory enforcement and industry watchdogs staffed with retired bureaucrats lay at the heart of this tragedy and speak to wider problems in a society where rules are flouted and good sense is sacrificed at the altar of growth and profits. It’s a litany of the very same problems that came to light in Japan after the Fukushima nuclear accident. A whistle-blower from the ferry firm was ignored this past January for inconveniently exposing a range of safety violations that indicted not only the company, but also those who were supposed to be monitoring safety compliance. Everyone suspects that corruption played a key role in officials ignoring a series of accident coverups, systematic overloading of cargo and passengers, and not raising the alarm about expanded passenger cabin capacity that made the ship top-heavy and unstable. The monitors were not monitoring and crucial information was not shared, creating blind spots that enabled the ferry company to violate safety rules with impunity until it was too late.

Referring to the cozy and collusive ties between regulatory agencies and the industries they regulate, a corrupt web of influence peddling that permeates South Korea, Park said, “It’s deeply regrettable that this incident happened because we have failed to remove these layers of long-running evils. I should have tried harder to fight these bad practices and abnormalities.”

Her comments bring to mind the conclusions of investigators into Japan’s nuclear accident at Fukushima where the averted-eyes approach to safety was nurtured in the same hothouse of institutionalized venality and complacency. It also served as a reminder about why three of South Korea’s nuclear reactors were idled in 2013. Investigators discovered that parts with faked safety certificates were being used in these reactors, apparently with the complicity of regulatory authorities. The long arc from high-tech energy plants to local ferry service is indicative of just how far the rot may extend, a systemic issue that feeds a collective disillusion. There is a nagging feeling that the onward and upward, pedal-to-the-metal ethos of this high-tension society obscures a troubling reality that has more than a few Koreans wondering: Did we fool ourselves into believing that all the fakery, double-dealing and sleaze wouldn’t catch up with us?

Nothing can ease the pain of families who lost their children in this avoidable disaster, but hopefully Sewol is a wakeup call that will save others from a similar fate. The dignity and compassion displayed by Koreans during this ordeal demands no less.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • Del

    You like to speak of culture as though you were an expert. These sorts of industrial problems are not exclusive to Korea and Japan. They happen here in the US as well. Foreign corporations have committed industrial crime here also, such as British Petroleum. Why don’t you speak instead of the culture of capitalism? Are you ignorant of the entire history of industrial negligence and exploitation of human life? Wake up! We can’t afford to have “writers” like you spread more sputum about “culture” while avoiding the incentive system that sacrifices people for the sake of gold.

  • Jeff Kingston

    Alas you misread my article as I don’t attribute the tragedy to Korean culture and I do believe greed lead to negligence as I wrote:”rules are flouted and good sense is sacrificed at the altar of growth and profits.”