Argument

A Government, Sinking

Why South Koreans can't get over the Sewol ferry disaster.

Ed Jones/AFP
Ed Jones/AFP

On April 16, the Sewol ferry sank off the southern coast of South Korea, killing more than 300 people, most of them teenagers. Nearly seven months later, the court convicted the ship’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, of gross negligence, and sentenced him 36 years in prison. Prosecutors initially charged Lee with homicide and demanded the death penalty for the man they said was responsible for one of the worst maritime catastrophes in South Korean history. Yet the lesser charge was itself harsh: The 69-year-old Lee will almost certainly spend the rest of his life behind bars. As the ferry began taking on water, Lee fled the ship while many passengers and junior crew members remained inside to perish.

As horrific as the disaster was, the judgment seems severe for a man whose crime was negligence, not murderous intent. But the severity of the punishment echoes a national trend: South Koreans are still desperately searching for ways to ameliorate the trauma of Sewol. To Koreans, the disaster represented a breach of trust; authorities at all levels, from the ferry operators to the central government, failed in their duties to safeguard citizens. For a country that is now comfortably ensconced in the developed world — its GDP per capita is nearly $26,000, considerably higher than that of Portugal — the sinking called into question the very building blocks of Korea’s progress. And in the wake of the tragedy, the actions of both the public and the government — the late-April resignation of Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, ongoing demonstrations in the capital of Seoul, the shuttering and reorganization of the country’s Coast Guard, and, finally, the severe punishment of the perpetrators — are attempts to reconcile the failures of the country’s most basic institutions.   

These failures began almost immediately. Approximately 30 minutes after the ferry began to sink, a Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) center, which provides monitoring and advice to vessels, ordered the captain to put life vests on the passengers, deploy all emergency floats, and evacuate the ship. The crew, however, did none of this. The captain told the VTS that the ship’s public address (PA) system did not work, which was not true. All the while, the PA system was functional, and it was being used to convey the worst possible message to passengers: stay put. When rescue boats arrived, Lee, wearing only his underwear, and the senior crew escaped first, leaving behind the junior crew and hundreds of passengers.

The rescue effort itself was perilously disorganized. The VTS had done little to inform South Korea’s Coast Guard about the scene — as a result, the first responders only included two helicopters and two boats, with no rescue divers. In an interview following the disaster, the first responders said they were confused about why there were no people in the water — because they had assumed that the ship was already evacuated. Unaware that nearly all the passengers were still inside the ship, the rescue team never attempted to enter to save those who were trapped inside.

Following the accident, the media was equally inept. The Internet age came to South Korea earlier than almost any other country, and domestic outlets there have mastered the art of click-bait sensationalism. Newsis, an online newspaper, infiltrated Danwon, a high school in the outskirts of Seoul where the teenage victims had attended school, and took a staged photo of a dead student just hours after the ship sank. Respected TV stations like SBS and JTBC harassed the just-rescued survivors for interviews. (A reporter from SBS attempted to interview a 5-year-old girl whose family perished in the ship.) On a live television broadcast from the port where the surviving passengers gathered immediately after the rescue, a reporter from JTBC asked a surviving student, "Are you aware that your friends died?" The teenager started crying.

In the months following the disaster, the administration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye attempted to allay the public indignation. Park made a public apology, accepted the resignation of the prime minister, and vowed to reform the Coast Guard. Yet the administration also tried to deflect blame away from the government. After the sinking, Park placed responsibility for the casualty numbers squarely at the feet of the ferry operators, saying the actions of the captain and crew were "akin to murder." (Government prosecutors also charged the chief executive officer of the company, Kim Han-sik, with manslaughter; they are seeking 15 years in prison.)

More troublingly, the government responded defensively to public frustration, planting plainclothes police around the victims’ families to monitor any signs of agitation. It ordered the state-owned network television station KBS to avoid criticizing the Coast Guard and the rescue effort. The administration also announced that it would actively monitor the Internet and mobile chat apps to apprehend those spreading "false rumors": So far, the administration has indicted 174 people for spreading erroneous rumors online. School boards instructed teachers and students to stay mum on the tragedy — even though the loss of hundreds of high school students resonated with many Korean teenagers. A public school teacher in the large city of Daegu was censured when he disobeyed the directive and criticized the president on his Facebook page. 

In the Park administration’s response, the public sensed echoes of the same message that the Sewol crew imparted to its passengers: stay put. Don’t cause trouble, the administration seemed to be saying, so that we may be the first to escape from this mess.

To be sure, South Korean democracy is not about to slip into the dark days of authoritarian rule — when dictators like Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, who ruled from 1961 to 1979, arrested, tortured, and murdered those perceived to oppose the government. Korean democracy remains vibrant — elections are free and fair and the right to free speech remains a hallmark of the country’s political culture. But the government’s actions reinforced the fundamental anxiety that the ferry accident engendered: Having enjoyed decades of vibrant democracy, the Korean public thought the country was beyond this. 

Three months after the sinking, families of the Sewol victims set up a protest site in Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul, and began demanding an independent investigation into the numerous governmental failures that led to the disaster. By the end of the summer, thousands had joined demonstrations in Seoul, with some two dozen other protest sites set up across the rest of South Korea.

More than half a year after the tragedy, Korean citizens remain aggrieved. Support for the Park administration, which stood at over 60 percent shortly before the accident, dipped to 45 percent, where it remains. In mid-November, lawmakers finally passed legislation appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the tragedy, yet public discontent is still strong, and protests in Gwanghwamun Square continue. In many of the demonstrations, the protesters marched silently, holding up signs with a simple message: stay put.

S. Nathan Park is an attorney at Kobre & Kim LLP based in Washington, D.C., and an expert in East Asian politics and economy.

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