The Korean way

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The Korean way


Song Ho-keun

We are in a collective state of shock, dismay, anger, shame and guilt. We cannot dare to shed tears, lie comfortably in bed or fill our stomachs when we think of how cold and hungry our children would be were they in those frigid waters. It is a feeling shared in a shamed silence across the nation. Any parent would have felt their heart break forever upon reading the last text message from one of the teenagers on the ferry: “Mom, I’m sending this because I may not be able to say this again. I love you.”

If the ship capsized on the other side of the world, swallowed by some monstrous wave that had nothing to do with us, it would be easier to let go. But this happened in our waters. The currents may be treacherous, but how can anyone explain why it took more than two hours for help to arrive when the ship was sinking with 476 lives - mostly kids - on board?

There were plenty of fishing boats and other vessels nearby. How can anyone understand the captain of the ship placing the steering wheel in the hands of an inexperienced mate or his fleeing with other crew members while ordering the rest of the passengers to stay below deck?

When the Titanic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean on her maiden voyage to New York around this time 102 years ago, Captain Edward John Smith locked himself inside the ship’s wheelhouse after he evacuated 1,700 passengers and sank into the sea with his ship. The crew would have been equally scared, but they checked themselves and made way for women and children to get to safety under the captain’s authoritative command, “Be British, boys, be British!” If we had seen the same chivalry in the sinking of the Sewol, we may not be mourning as much or for so long.

Shamefully, nothing was done in the British style. This was a truly Korean event. The 6,825-ton Sewol was an aged and overworked horse whipped by its greedy, debt-ridden owner. Blinded by his company’s obligations, he ordered everyone to ignore regulations and pack in the passengers and freight to make more money.

The captain and crew were equally money-hungry. More cargo and passengers meant bigger bonuses. They defied perilous water and weather conditions, did not bother to go through routine safety examinations, check the numbers of life jackets or the condition of the lifeboats, and probably couldn’t remember the last time they flipped through the safety manual.

But as the ship made its way through a notoriously tumultuous area with fast currents, the captain stuck to one order from the old manual - the steering wheel can be handed to a mate from 8 a.m. In a devil-may-care manner, he left the bridge to a novice, who made a right turn so risky it ended up being fatal hundreds of times over.

The vessel listed. The captain got out of his bed and met with his crew on the bridge, ordering them to evacuate. As they scurried to save themselves, they left the passengers - mostly high school students on a lighthearted school trip to Jeju Island - hostages of the roaring sea.

The old horse somehow stayed above the waters for 87 minutes. And yet the students refused to evacuate because of repeated orders from the people in charge to stay where they were below deck - supposedly for their safety. The choppers, fishing boats, Coast Guard and rescuers helplessly circled around the sinking vessel, pulling up the people they spotted, but not even thinking of going onboard to seek out people inside. The country’s entire population witnessed the hours-long crime scene live - leaving a painful and shameful memory of what it means to accomplish something in a typically Korean style.

The crisis management was equally dismal and pathetic. All the glitzy technology and resourcefulness the country has boasted of for years proved to be a chimera. The families and public were repeatedly told that the rescue mission was interrupted by poor visibility and harsh currents. Divers finally entered the capsized vessel 80 hours after its sinking. A high-tech nation was helpless and pitifully third-rate at sea. Rescuers and support infrastructure were disorganized and amateurish.

The numbers on the passenger list and the numbers of survivors, dead and missing didn’t add up. Simple arithmetic seemed beyond the Korean nation. No one can say how the rescue mission was orchestrated, ordered or carried out. Most of the real accomplishments on site were by civilians - fishermen who arrived at the scene first and civilian divers who first swam into the cabins returning with the bodies. A five-star, highly civilized and democratic society betrayed its feet of clay to the world at large. We’re like Stone Age cavemen waving smartphones in the air. Look at us!

The families are wailing. How can they not when their days and their children’s lives have been wasted by bureaucratic impotence? We cannot blame them for attempting to storm into the presidential office. The nearby port where the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters were set up is a chaotic cluster of journalists, families, rescuers, fishermen, police and politicians. Boisterous scenes pan out where a calm, carefully-orchestrated campaign to save lives should take place. Another reality check for Koreans.

We cannot raise our heads for shame. We should promise to live the rest of our lives with our mouths shut and heads in the sand if even one of the poor young students returns alive to the bosom of his or her family. You’re our last hope and pride. Come back alive and teach us what it should be like to be Korean.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 22, Page 31

*The author is a sociology professor of Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun

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