Confucian guilt spreads in Korea

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Confucian guilt spreads in Korea


A temporary group mourning altar for victims of the ferry accident is set up at the Ansan Olympic Museum in Ansan, Gyeonggi, yesterday.[NEWSIS]

Mourning for the victims of the ferry disaster showed the Confucian and collective foundations of Korean society as adults blamed themselves for letting down their own young.

“Students are in the cold sea because of irresponsible and unethical adults,” read a message on a web page dedicated to the tragic accident. “I feel ashamed for being an adult in this country and also for not being able to do anything for them.”

Another message read, “Children just listened to what the adults were saying but could not escape. I feel terrible that I’m one of the older generation that made this ugly world.”

While most of the messages are meant to express condolences to the families and friends of the victims, adults are reproaching themselves for the accident, even when they had absolutely nothing to do with it.

This sort of reaction appears to be unprecedented, even after huge accidental tragedies of the past, such as the collapse of Seoul’s Seongsu Bridge in 1994, the Sampoong Department Store in 1995 and the gymnasium of the Mauna Ocean Resort this February.

Total strangers are accepting joint, generational responsibility for a world so poorly and cynically run that the Sewol ferry did not seem to have had a proper safety examination and the passengers were not given any safety lessons in advance of the tragedy.

The behavior of certain adults at the scene also came in for scathing criticism from the average person on the street.

“Adults escaped first, leaving the children in the sinking ship,” said a 46-year-old office worker. “I assume greedy adults who didn’t bother to fulfill their duties caused the accident. When other big accidents occurred in the past, I was surprised but didn’t feel guilty about it. However, I feel terribly sorry for the students this time because I’m old enough to have contributed to this terrible world.”

The confirmed death toll in the accident rose to 113 yesterday and 189 people are still unaccounted for.

The adults’ distress has only grown over the endless days of the search - during which no survivors were found. “I imagined the students locked in the ship,” said Jeong Hye-jin, a 38-year-old living in Seongdong District, eastern Seoul. “But I feel sorry because all I can do is just to watch the vessel sink and cry”

“The ferry accident and rescue effort were aired in real-time to the public all across the country, whereas the collapses of the Sampoong Department Store and the Mauna Ocean Resort happened in an instant,” said Kim Jung-baek, a professor of sociology at the Kyung Hee University.

“Feelings of powerlessness and guilt were maximized as people watched the scene live and authorities ran about in confusion and no students were saved.”

Some say Confucian culture, in which bonds between parents and children are paramount, plays a big part in the reaction.

“Most parents have similar experiences of sending their children off on a school trip,” said a 45-year-old woman Kim Hee-jin.

“Since the tragedy was related to something as common as a school trip, it felt like my children could have been among the victims.”

“We can say everyone became a witness,” said Yun Dae-hyeon, a professor of psychiatry at the Seoul National University Hospital Healthcare System Gangnam Center. “The country, society, each individual were powerless in the face of this capsized vessel. It gave us our biggest trauma since the Korean War and it is natural that the entire country is feeling sorrow.”


“A big part of Confucianism - respecting older generations - has gotten shook up,” added Cha Seong-hyeon, a professor of education at Chonnam National University. “It will be harder to settle conflicts [between generations], so we must try to regain the intergenerational trust.”

Some of the messages left on the Web read, “I’m sorry that I cannot promise that such tragedy will not happen again. I’ll do my best to build up a safe country that has nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Feeling sorry is different from feeling sad,” said Kim Young-hoon, a professor of psychiatry at Inje University. “Feeling sorry could be a driving force to amend faulty aspects of society once we overcome the stress from the accident.”

On Monday night, about 500 people gathered at a plaza near the Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi, to hold a candlelit vigil. Beginning with 200 fellow students of the victims on Thursday, more than 1,200 people gathered on Sunday.

Following the vigil in Ansan, civic groups in Jeju Island, where the ferry should have landed on Wednesday, held a candlelit ceremony at the Jeju City Hall on Saturday.


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