APRIL 30, 2014
SOUTH KOREA LOOKS FOR ANSWERS AFTER A TRAGEDY
POSTED BY JIAYANG FAN
On the foggy evening of April 15th, four hundred and seventy-six passengers, most of them high-school students, boarded the ferry MV Sewol in Incheon, South Korea’s third-largest city, headed toward the holiday island of Jeju. Eleven hours later, what should have been a routine trip had become one of the worst disasters in Korean history: after the ferry capsized and calls for help were not answered in time, more than three hundred people died, many of them sixteen-year-olds whose bodies have not yet been recovered.
Such tragedies may stun a nation into stupor, and then into silence: in the days after the accident, Korea suspended television comedies and cheering at baseball stadiums. But soon enough the grief, shock, and confusion congeal into an obsession with blame and explanation: How could this have happened? And who will take responsibility?
As the story continues to unfold, every detail is seized upon and scrutinized for the clues that it might provide. As a result, the story has become as much about the nation’s reaction to the tragedy as about the event itself. When it was reported that the students on board had been instructed, by the ship’s captain and crew, to stay put even after the ship tilted beyond repair, this became the sort of devastating, and seemingly defining, detail from which a compelling national theory could be constructed.
Could Koreans’ Confucian culture, with its emphasis on deference to authority, be the true culprit? This was the argument put forth by many news outlets.
CNN: “What this culture prizes in its children, in its students, is obedience. And so, when they were told to stay put by an adult, of course they would stay put.”
The Dallas Morning News: “If that was a boatload of American students, you know they would have been finding any and every way to get off that ferry.”
Reuters: “Many of the children did not question their elders, as is customary in hierarchical Korean society. They paid for their obedience with their lives.”
This sort of cultural blaming and shaming is all too common in the wake of a tragedy, when commentators grasp for concrete and cohesive answers to lend some semblance of closure. When an Asiana Airlines jet travelling from Seoul crashed while landing in San Francisco last summer, killing two Chinese teenagers, many speculated that Korea’s “authoritarian culture” had been a factor in the cockpit, leading to a failure of communication and the subsequent accident.
Sewol’s first distress call, made at 8:53 A.M., did not come from the ship’s crew: it came from a young boy, who was clearly capable of asking for the help that his elders had not yet requested. In fact, many of the harrowing tales that have emerged from the Sewol disaster are about those who acted mature beyond their years—and in defiance of supposed cultural norms—during a moment of crisis: the student who gave his life vest to his friend and returned to the foundering ferry to save others; the twenty-two-year-old junior crew member who helped passengers escape and refused to leave the ship while passengers were still on board. Meanwhile, among the first people to abandon the ship were the captain and fifteen experienced members of his crew—the people, according to the Confucian hierarchy, who bore responsibility for the welfare of those under their command. Did Korean culture not determine their behavior?
In the continuing quest for answers, some have pointed toward structural deficiencies in the government—for which the South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, made an unprecedented apology on Tuesday. Others have mentioned the lack of proper safety protocols on the ferry, or a general proclivity to cut corners in pursuit of profit in a hyper-competitive society. All of these explanations seem reasonable enough, and yet none of them, on their own, can fully explain a calamity of such monumental scale. Which may be why the obsession with blame and explanation will not subside: the search itself is an expression of our incredulity and heartbreak.
Two days after he was rescued from the Sewol, the vice-principal of the high school that the students on the ferry attended hung himself outside an auditorium where the parents of missing teenagers had gathered to wait for updates. In his pocket was a suicide note, in which he took full responsibility for the tragedy, because he had proposed the trip; he could not live, the note said, knowing that his students had died. On Sunday, Chung Hong-won, the South Korean Prime Minister, resigned over the botched rescue operation. “When I saw the people’s sadness and fury, I thought it was natural for me to step down,” he said during his final speech. These statements of remorse—however different in scale—might be seen as a reflection of Korean cultural values, but they would be better described as embodying the fear, during a period of unprecedentedly rapid development, that a culture has compromised the attributes it most valued.
In the span of five decades, South Korea has transformed itself from one of the poorest nations in the world to one of the wealthiest. A Confucian focus on education, diligence, and discipline has helped its people reap deserved success and progress, as has its reputation as the most wired country on the planet. Some have called its remarkable rate of change nothing short of a miracle.
But the speed has also come at a price. Closer examination of the Sewol sinking exposes structural flaws directly and indirectly tied to Korea’s extraordinary economic development. The cozy relationship between government and industry, which allows leading companies to obtain safety certification from regulators they pay off, has long been a fact of business. So has a reliance on short-term labor, which is cost effective but discourages the proper training of employees—like the Sewol crew—in emergency preparedness.
Greed and cut-throat business acumen run counter to Confucian principles, but they are, in part, what has allowed Korea to modernize at such a furious pace. They are also likely to be responsible for the lax enforcement and loopholes that contributed to the calamity. In the words of JoongAng Ilbo, a widely read South Korean daily, “Our nation has run headlong toward the goal of becoming wealthy. But we turned a blind eye to the goal of being a civilized and safe society.” The sense of collective guilt and shame engulfing Korea is a cultural phenomenon, according to some. If that is true, it may very well be the acknowledgement of a painful contradiction. In disobeying the most basic Confucian precept that places ethics above economics, many mourn the pricelessness of who—and what—they’ve lost.
Photograph courtesy South Korea Coast Guard via Yonhap/AP.