A sad portrait of Korea

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A sad portrait of Korea

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Lee Jun-seok, captain of the ferry that capsized on April 16 in waters off the southwestern coast with 476 people on board, was one of the first to flee the ship. [NewsY]

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Lee Ha-kyung

Writer Kim Hoon was 3 years old when the Korean War broke out in 1950. His mother had the young children get on the roof of the train, which left Seoul and travelled southward for nine days. Many of the passengers died of cold or fell off. While the people were struggling to survive, dignitaries boarded the passenger cars, bringing pianos, furniture and even dog bowls. Young Kim grew up, listening to the stories from grown-ups.

Sixty-four years later, has Korea changed? Everyone saw the shocking footage of the ferry Sewol capsizing on television live. The captain abandoned the ship and the passengers to save his own life. The high school students who could have been rescued followed the captain’s order to stay put.

The captain was saved in the first rescue boat, and while those still aboard struggled in the water and the dark, he dried up his wet 50,000 won bills. More than two generations have passed since the 195-53 Korean War, but not much has changed. The captain drying his bills is like the dignitaries packing dog bowls. Again in 2014, the egoism that does not empathize with the pains and sufferings of others triumphed. The ethics and zeitgeist of the Republic of Korea remain barbaric.

The public is demanding the captain be charged with murder. People are furious with the cruel reality, of young people trapped in the cold ocean. They cry, “Where is God?” The captain is guilty, and the persecutors have reasons to consider murder charges. But are we innocent? Korea is a leader in automobiles, semiconductors and mobile phones, and Kim Yu-na and Ryu Hyun-jin bring glory from overseas. But who is responsible for creating the survival of the fittest atmosphere of Korea, where the least amount of ethics and shame are absent?

In Korea, academic excellence is most valued. When you graduate from an elite school and get a high-paying job, you are considered successful. If you are rich, you can beat fines in the millions of dollars with a few days of prison “labor.” The underprivileged people are ignored, while the upper class enjoys lives of privilege. The Sewol accident is the true nature of Korea. Our shameful face is reflected in the captain who abandoned ship.

Korea’s per-capita national income is well over $20,000 and is expected to reach $40,000 in a few years, but we still live in the ridiculous reality where students may not return home safely from a field trip. From the president to the prime minister to other ministers, everyone who fails to correct our abnormalities are accomplices in the tragic accident. Every one of us is guilty for compromising. Although the president said that the captain was like a murderer, who among us can condemn him?

In the Republic of Korea, there is no way of knowing how many people were on board, how many were rescued and how much cargo was loaded when an accident took hundreds of lives. The civil service has created 3,200 safety and crisis manuals, but they are all useless. People may create a fuss over a serious accident for a while, but a few months later, no one remembers. The community is tied to the dirty reality, rooted in expedient and illegal measures. We can hardly find any means to salvage the capsized 6,825-ton ferry and have the captain return to the ship.

The 18-year-old ferry was purchased from Japan, but the ship was remodeled to accommodate more people and cargo. Former crew members of the ship said they quit because they felt their lives were threatened since the ship tilted often. Despite the serious warning signs, the Sewol passed a safety test two months ago. A former official from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries was in charge of the safety inspection agency. But the supervisory organization and the safety inspection agency have all been dominated by former officials for decades. Clause 6, Article 34 of the Constitution states that the state has to make efforts to prevent disasters and protect the citizens from the danger. The government has made the Constitution helpless.

“To sin is a human business. To justify sins is a devilish business,” said Leo Tolstoy. We should admit that we are all accomplices of the Sewol ferry disaster. That is the way to mourn the victims. Let’s stop the dizzying dash and look back. Only then can the Republic of Korea become a normal country of people living as decent human beings.

The nightmarish week has passed. We wish it was a nightmare. We pray for the lives trapped in the ferry to be rescued. We desperately pray for a miracle.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 23, Page 31

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Ha-kyung


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