Friday, May 02, 2014

The Sewol Tragedy: Part II - Causes and Contributing Factors

[Series Index]

[NOTE:  I finished writing the first draft of this post on April 30, 2014. Since then, additional facts have been uncovered. I will periodically update this post as I learn new, relevant facts.]

The Sewol. The ferry company's logo ("Chonghaejin") is also visible.

The sinking of the Sewol is a terrible disaster that was entirely preventable. Instead, a confluence of numerous circumstances, people and their decisions resulted in the senseless destruction of more than 300 lives, overwhelming majority of whom were young high school students, about to enter the prime of their lives.

What caused the sinking of Sewol? What contributed to those deaths? The best way to answer these questions is to sort out the actions of the important parties involved at important junctures.

In this accident, there are three significant actors:
  • The captain and the crew, who was immediately responsible for the ship and the passengers;
  • Cheonghaejin Marine Co., the ferry company in charge of maintaining and operating the ship, and; 
  • The government, which played a dual role of the regulator and the rescuer. 
There are four significant segments of time:
  1. Before the accident; 
  2. Between when the Sewol set sail and when it began to list; 
  3. Approximately 40 minutes between when the ship began to list, and 
  4. After the rescue efforts began. 
When we examine how these three actors behaved in the four segments of time, we begin to have an understanding of what could have prevented this tragedy.


The Crew

There were 33 crew members on the Sewol. Out of the 33, 15 were the senior crew members who were in charge of steering and operating the ship (as opposed to, say, manning the snack bar or providing customer service.) The 15 include: 69-year-old Captain Lee Jun-seok [이준석], two First Mates, one Second Mate, one Third Mate, three Helmsmen, three Engineers and four Assistant Engineers. The other 18 were junior crew members, which included stewards, an event planner and custodians. All 15 senior crew members were in the bridge when the ship began sinking; all 15 survived. Out of the 29, 20 crew members survived--a rate vastly superior to the survival rate of the entire ship (174 out of 476) or that of the Danwon High School students (75 out of 325). Currently, seven out of the 15 senior crew members are under arrest pending investigation.

Because the 15 senior crew members bore the responsibility for the steering and operation of the ship, this post will only focus on them. When I refer to "the Crew" from this point on, I am referring to the 15 senior crew members.

The Company

Cheonghaejin [청해진] Marine Co. (alternately romanized as "Chonghaejin") is the largest coastline ferry company in Korea. Cheonghaejin was established in 1999; its name is for the famous historical seaside fortress in the southwestern part of Korea. Cheonghaejin operates three lines with four ships, and operates the water taxi on the Han River in Seoul.

The distinction of being the largest coastline ferry company in Korea is less impressive than it sounds. In terms of efficiency, passenger ferry is no match for high speed rails and low cost airlines. Thus, Korea's coastline ferry companies tend to be small, and the profit margin thin. Cheonghaejin was a small-ish mid-size company that has been losing money for the last several years.

The Incheon-Jeju line, however, was a moneymaker for Cheonghaejin. Cheonghaejin has a monopoly on the Incheon-Jeju line, for which it operated two ships: the Omahana and the Sewol. Cheonghaejin made significant investment to create the monopoly. Even as Cheonghaejin was losing money, it had spent more than $14 million in purchasing and modifying the Sewol in 2012. With two ships, Cheonghaejin was able to set sail five times a week, absorbing all demand for the line and freezing out other ferry companies.

The line was particularly lucrative because Jeju, a large island, consistently required supplies from the mainland. Although both the Omahana and the Sewol were passenger ships, they were also able to carry trucks and container cargoes. Doing so came with an additional price advantage: because the two ships were technically passenger ferries, they were exempt from the fees that the Jeju seaport charged on cargo ships. Essentially, Cheonghaejin was making up the decreased demand in passenger ferry by doubling as a bootleg cargo carrier.

Cheonghaejin's revenue from 2008 to 2013.
Unit = KRW 1M (~US$1,000).
Blue line represents income from passengers; red line represents same from freight.

Cheonghaejin is ultimately owned by 73-year-old Yoo Byeong-eon. In addition to overseeing a small corporate empire, Yoo's day job included being a pastor for a Christianity-derivative cult called the Saviorists [구원파]. (I previously covered the Saviorist cult in this blog. For those living in New York: they are the creepy Asian people in orange t-shirts talking about "Bible Crusade.") Currently, Yoo and his cronies are under investigation for embezzlement and bribery.

The Government

President Park Geun-hye's administration is entering its second full year. The previous administration was led by President Lee Myeong-bak, who was also a conservative like his successor. In the area of economic policies, President Lee was the most neoliberal president that Korea has ever had. Like America's Republican presidents after which he modeled himself, President Lee pushed for lower taxes, privitization and deregulation. The Park administration was content to keep the trend going.

Outgoing President Lee Myeong-bak,
congratulating the newly elected Park Geun-hye after the 2012 election.

During her presidential campaign, one of Park's signature themes was public safety. After Park took office, one of her first notable moves was to change the name of the Ministry of Public Administration and Security to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration--so as to convey the message that public safety takes priority in the Ministry's mission.

After the jump, how these three actors before, during and after the sinking of the Sewol.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


The Government

Cheonghaejin's purchase of the Sewol was made possible by Lee Myeong-bak administration's deregulation drive. In 2008, under the Lee administration, the maximum allowable age for a passenger ship went from 20 years to 30 years. This allowed Cheonghaejin to purchase an 18-year-old Japanese ferry ship that was going out of commission, for nearly scrap-metal price.

The advanced age of the ship caused constant problems. Company records show that the Sewol had engine RPM issues two months prior to the accident. A report from the beginning of April shows that the Sewol's helm would lose power.

The Company

Once Cheonghaejin purchased the Sewol, it added two more floors on top of the ship in order to hold more passengers and cargo. The ship, originally three stories, was modified to five stories. To build on top, Cheonghaejin removed a drawbridge ramp, which weighed 50 metric tons, from one side of the ship. In short, the modifications made the Sewol a much more unstable ship:  its center of gravity became higher, and a massive piece of metal (the ramp) was removed from only one side of the ship. A former Engineer of the Sewol said the ship would frequently list, sometimes as much as by 10 degrees. One Cheonghaejin employee quit the company before he was concerned of the Sewol's instability.

Cheonghaejin, a small, financially struggling company, also cut corners on safety. Because it never had enough money to invest in a new ship, it had consistently set itself up for the safety hazards that come with older ships. (In 2001, for example, Cheonghaejin lost two ferry ships due to fire.) Even though the Sewol was more of a (thinly) disguised cargo ship rather than a passenger ferry, the ship never had a proper harnessing system for containers. Unlike a regular container ship, there was no locking mechanism on Sewol's deck that held the containers to the floor, nor were there winches that would mechanically tighten the steel cable over the top of the containers. The contains simply rested on the deck, nominally held down by ropes that were tied to the hooks in the ship. Further, Cheonghaejin outsourced the harnessing of the cargo to a subcontractor. The subcontractor, afraid of losing Cheonghaejin's account, never could ask the ferry company to invest money in proper harnessing mechanism.

In 2013, the company only spent around $500 on the crew's safety education. As discussed further below, the company also hired inexperienced crew as a way to save money.

The Crew

As a group, the crew members had terrible job security. Korea's labor law is closer to Europe than the United States, in that employees are legally guaranteed certain rights and benefits, such as the right to unionize, receive pension and take annual leaves. However, the deregulation trend in Korea for the last decade eroded those guarantees. Currently, the labor market in Korea is divided into two groups:  "regular workers" [정규직], who receive the traditional benefits provided by Korea's labor laws, and "irregular workers" [비정규직], who do not. Unlike with the regular workers, the employer may fire the irregular workers without cause and without paying severance. As a result, compared to regular workers, irregular workers have little to no leverage with the company.

As of late 2013, approximately 2/3 of all wage workers in Korea were regular workers, 1/3 irregular workers. With the crew of Sewol, the reverse was true:  nine out of the 15 crew members were irregular workers, including the Captain. Nine out of the 15 crew members had worked for the Cheonghaejin for less than six months. (The Captain had worked for the company for more than a decade, but was recently converted into an irregular worker, presumably because of his age.) One of the First Mates joined the company the day before he boarded the Sewol. Among the top three decision-makers of the ship--i.e. the Captain and the two First Mates--only one of the First Mates was a regular worker.

The crew members were also paid poorly. Employees for domestic ferries receive less than two-thirds of the same for the ships that travel internationally. In addition, irregular workers generally get paid less than regular workers. This means that the Sewol's crew tended to be either too old or too inexperienced. The Captain was 67 years old; the Third Mate, who was steering the ship when the ship began listing, was 25 years old. Both the Third Mate and the Helmsman who were at the helm when the ship began listing had never worked on a passenger ferry until they joined the crew of the Sewol, less than six months prior.

Particularly problematic was the Captain Lee Jun-seok. Lee, in addition to being an irregular worker, was a substitute who was called in when the original captain--who is a regular worker--was taking his labor law-mandated monthly leave. Further, contrary to the normal practice of having two alternating captains for each ship, Lee served as the substitute captain for both the Sewol and the Omahana, the two ferry boats from Incheon to Jeju.


Map of South Korea.
Incheon is to the west of Seoul. Jeju is the large island in the south.
The Sewol was passing the southwestern tip of Korean Peninsula.

The Company

Korean Register of Shipping, a non-profit organization, certified the safety of the Sewol after modification with several conditions. Because the ship became significantly heavier, KRS ordered the Sewol to reduce the maximum cargo load from 2,437 tons to 987 tons. Further, the Sewol had to increase the amount of ballast water it carried in the stabilizing tanks from 1,023 tons to 2,030 tons.

However, Cheonghaejin habitually overloaded the Sewol with cargo, as the cargo business from Incheon to Jeju was the true moneymaker for the company. The Sewol's regular captain, as well as the substitute Captain Lee, routinely complained that the company was overloading the ship. On the day the Sewol embarked its fateful journey, the ship's First Mate told the company that unless it stopped loading, the ship would sink. The Sewol's bill of lading shows that the ship carried jaw-dropping 3,608 tons, 3.7 times the allowed cargo weight. In order to balance the ship, the company almost certain drained a huge amount of ballast water. The net effect was to make the ship extremely unstable due to excess weight, with not enough ballast water to balance the ship.

The Government

How did the Incheon Coast Guard, which was in charge of overseeing the port of Incheon, fail to catch this unconscionable overloading? Part of it was that the Sewol's paperwork indicated that it was allowed to carry the total weight (as opposed to the cargo weight) of 3,963 tons. The paperwork should have been approved by the Coast Guard, Incheon Port Authority, the KRS, Korea Ship Safety Technology Authority and Korea Shipping Association. All of the foregoing are under investigation, as the incorrect paperwork strongly suggests potential corruption.

In fact, the Sewol was not even supposed to leave Incheon. The night before the accident, the port of Incheon was surrounded in thick fog. The Sewol, which was supposed to leave at 6:30 p.m., left the port at 9 p.m. However, at 9 p.m., the visibility was too low for the Sewol to be allowed to leave. On the night of April 15, 2014, the Sewol was the only ship that was allowed to set sail out of Incheon.

The Company

Cheonghaejin's preferred course from Incheon to Jeju included a passage through the Maenggol Road [맹골수도], near the southwestern tip of Korean Peninsula. Maenggol Road is named after the nearby Maenggol-do island, which means "the island of fierce bones" in reference to the numerous sharp rocks around the island.

The waters of the peninsula's southwest is treacherous. The body of water there is alternately known as Dadohae [다도해], "the Sea of Many Islands." The largest among them is the Jindo island, home of the famously smart and loyal Jindo dogs. The numerous small islands form a huge number of channels, which funnel the water into a surprisingly fast and choppy ride. More than 400 years ago, the legendary Admiral Yi Sun-sin [이순신] used the unpredictable current around the southwestern sea to achieve one of the greatest naval victories in recorded history, which is now known as the Battle of Myeongryang [명량해전]. With only 13 warships at his disposal, Yi lured the oncoming Japanese fleet of 133 ships into the narrows between Jindo and the mainland, called Uldolmok [울돌목]. At the Uldolmok narrows, the Japanese fleet was caught in the current that suddenly reversed direction, exactly as Admiral Yi designed. The Japanese fleet, unable to maneuver against the current, became sitting ducks for Korean fleet's focused cannon fire. The Japanese fleet withdrew after losing more than 30 ships.

The Sewol's path was in that vicinity. The Maenggol Road, located on the opposite end of Jindo from the Uldolmok narrows, has the second-fastest current speed in Korea after the Uldolmok, at approximately 6 knots (7 miles per hour.) The tide in the Maenggol Road was so fast that Korean government was planning to build a tidal power plant nearby. Naturally, it is an accident-prone course: 28 maritime accidents occurred in Maenggol Road since 2007, which was enough for Korean Marine Safety Tribunal to advise ferries to avoid taking it.

On the plus side for the company, however, taking the Maenggol Road instead of going around it saved seven nautical miles of distance. So the Sewol would sail through the fast current.

The Crew

The Sewol was speeding, likely because the ship embarked 2.5 hours after it left Incheon and wanted to make up the time. As the ship was entering the Maenggol Road, the Sewol was traveling at 19 knots, or approximately 22 miles per hour. The off-duty helmsmen of the Sewol said, normally, the ship would travel through the Maenggol Road at between 16 to 18 knots. A speeding ship tends to turn faster than a slower ship.

At the time, the ship was being steered by the 25-year-old Third Mate Park Han-gyeol [박한결] and a 55-year-old Helmsman Jo Jun-ki [조준기]. They were not supposed to. The crew's shifts were set up such that when the Sewol passed through the Maenggol Road, it would be controlled by the First Mate, who would be relieved by the Third Mate once the ship reaches the open sea between Korean Peninsula and Jeju island. But the ship departed more than two hours after the scheduled time, which meant that the First Mate's shift was over before the ship reached the Maenggol Road.

So the Third Mate was in charge. Put together, the Third Mate and the Helmsman had worked for Cheonghaejin for only nine months. Before working on the Sewol, neither the Third Mate nor the Helmsman worked on a passenger ferry. Before this time, the Third Mate had been in control of the ship through the Maenggol Road exactly once, going from Jeju to Incheon.

Korea's Sailor Act provides that the captain must steer the ship himself when the ship is passing through dangerous areas, such as a narrows. But the Captain of Sewol was in his cabin. The Captain stopped by the bridge 10 minutes before the accident to give several instructions, and returned to his cabin. It is unclear what he was doing in the cabin. Depending on where you look, the accusations run from ludicrous to salacious.

The Sewol's course in the Maenggol Road.
The island on the northeastern corner of the small map is the Jindo island.

It is unclear why the Sewol made that fateful turn. The Third Mate and the Helmsmen gave conflicting statements to the police. The Third Mate and the Helmsman may have made a mistake, or the ship's rudder may have malfunctioned. We do know, however, that the Sewol turned sharply. The ship, modified to have a higher center of gravity and weight imbalance on each side, carrying more than three times the recommended weight in cargo which was not properly secured, with much of the stabilizing water drained out of its ballast tanks, started to list beyond the crew's control.

The Sewol turned sharply, lost its balance, and began sinking at 8:48 a.m., on the morning of April 16, 2014. The nearest Coast Guard station, in Mokpo, was nearly 30 miles away.


The Crew, the Company and the Government

As discussed further below, all relevant parties--the crew, Cheonghaejin, the Coast Guard, the Vessel Traffic Service--were aware that the ship was sinking by 9:07 a.m., less than 20 minutes after the accident. For the Sewol's passengers to escape from the ship, they had to be outside by around 9:50 a.m. Had any one of the actors made the correct judgment to evacuate ship during those 40 minutes or so, virtually all passenger could have been saved. Instead, all parties engaged in varying degrees of incompetence, indecision and confusion, which cost more than three hundred lives.

The Crew

At 8:55 a.m., seven minutes after the crew lost control of the ship, the crew sent a distress call to the Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) at Jeju. The Crew's distress call was three minutes later than the 119 call from a Danwon High School student. To its credit, the Coast Guard station in Mokpo almost immediately dispatched a rescue team in response to the 119 call.

It is unclear why the crew sent the distress call to the VTS station at Jeju (which was still more than more than 50 miles away) as opposed to the nearest VTS station at Jindo. One former crew member of the Sewol suggested that the Crew probably called Jeju VTS instead of Jindo VTS to avoid attracting too much attention by the authorities.

The Government

The Crew's decision to call the Jeju VTS instead of the Jindo VTS caused critical inefficiency, although the inefficiency was not merely the Crew's fault. By regulation, Jindo VTS was required to monitor the movement of all vessels passing through its jurisdiction. But Jindo VTS did not establish communication until 9:07 a.m., nearly 20 minutes after the Crew lost control of the ship. It took 12 minutes for the Jeju VTS and the Mokpo Coast Guard to relay the distress call to the Jindo VTS station.

Even if the Jindo VTS station received the news earlier, it is unclear if much more could have been done in terms of rescue. The nearest Coast Guard station was in Mokpo, more than 30 miles away from the Maenggol Road and the Sewol. In short, despite the accident-prone nature of the Maenggol Road, the Coast Guard was poorly positioned to help.

The Coast Guard also did not have enough personnel to deal with a major disaster like this one. Although Mokpo Coast Guard did send the rescue team at its disposal at quickly as it could after receiving the 119 call, the team was made up of only two helicopters and two boats. The next wave of rescue team, from Korean Navy, did not arrive until 10:21 a.m., well after the 9:50 a.m. "deadline." A boat with rescue divers did not arrive until 11:24 a.m., because the divers did not assemble until 9:30 a.m. By then, Mokpo Coast Guard did not have the ship or the helicopter to send the divers directly from Mokpo to the Sewol. Some of the divers hitched a ride with the police helicopters, which were located farther inland. Some of the divers had to drive from Mokpo to Jindo, then take the boat from Jindo.

The Company

At 9:01 a.m., one of the junior crew members of the Sewol--a cabin manager for the passengers--called the Cheonghaejin Marine Co., presumably to report the accident. Afterward, the company telephoned the Captain once, and the First Mate five times. The last phone call between the Crew and the company was at 9:37 a.m. By then, the rescue team had arrived.

The contents of those telephone calls are under heavy scrutiny by the police; as of now, they are not yet known. However, the fact that Cheonghaejin called the First Mate (who was, recall, a regular worker) far more frequently than the Captain (an irregular worker) suggests that the actual decision-making authority did not correspond with the formal order. It appears that the Captain was the leader in name only; the First Mate was calling the shots. The First Mate was the one that communicated with the Jindo VTS, and he was the first to escape the Sewol when the rescue team arrived. According to the video of the rescue, the Captain did not exit the ship until the First Mate waved him out of the bridge.

The Crew

In the 40 minutes between 8:55 a.m. (the distress call) and 9:37 a.m. (last call between the First Mate and the company,) the Crew does nothing to save the passengers. Nothing. Fucking nothing. The Crew did not even answer the call from the junior crew members from below the deck, who could only tell the passengers haplessly to remain in their cabins.

When the Jindo VTS told the Crew to make the announcement to the passengers to put on life jackets, the Crew lied and said the PA system was out. When the Jindo VTS told the Captain at 9:25 a.m. to "put out life boats, use your judgment and make the decision to evacuate ship," the Crew replied with a non-sequitur:  "if we evacuate now, will there be a rescue right away?"

The Government

Once Jindo VTS began communicating with the Sewol, it acted reasonably well. It did order the Captain to deploy the life boats and evacuate the ship based on his judgment. Given that the VTS had no visual of the exact situation, it seems like an unfair, 20/20 hindsight claim to say that the VTS should have been more forceful in ordering the Captain to evacuate.

However, Jindo VTS did fail to do one thing it reasonably could have done:  take an accurate stock of the situation, and relay the information to the rescue team that was heading to the Sewol. To be fair, the VTS asked the Sewol how much water it was taking on, and whether the passengers could escape. But it could have asked more pointed questions:  where were the passengers? Did they jump into the water? Huddled at the deck? Still inside the ship?


The Sewol sinks, with most of its passengers trapped inside.
The Crew

At 9:35 a.m., the Coast Guard rescued the first group of people from the Sewol. As it is now infamously known, the Crew escaped first, before everyone else on the ship. Critically, the Crew never announced to the passengers that they must evacuate the ship. The junior crew, below the top deck, was left to fend for their own. They heroically saved many passengers before they themselves perished.

Initially, the Captain claimed during the investigation that he did order to evacuate before he escaped. Text messages from the passengers, sent after the Captain's escape, showed that it was a lie. Afterward, the Captain said he was concerned that the passengers would not survive if they exited the ship because the water was too cold and too fast and there was no rescue ship around. If you are wondering if that explanation makes sense, don't.

The Company

At 9:38 a.m. an employee of the Cheonghaejin Marine Co. placed a call to its field office at the port of Incheon. The employee, who is now under investigation, called to tell the field office to destroy evidence of the fact that the Sewol was vastly overloaded with cargo.

The Government

The Coast Guard first responders deserve high praise for arriving as quickly as they did. The first responders, however, had no idea about the specifics of the situation because no one asked. The first responders said when they arrived at the ship, they were perplexed that there were not a ton of people in the water already. But the urgency of the situation made the Coast Guard focus first on taking the people who were ready to get out. (And of course, the people who were most ready to board the Coast Guard rescue boat was the Crew.)

For the passengers--mostly young students--who were not lucky enough to run into the junior crew frantically running to save as many people as they could, the last official instruction they heard was to stay in their cabins. The Coast Guard's helicopter did blare through the bullhorn, telling the passengers to evacuate, but the sound did not travel far enough inside the cabins. (Also, many of the passengers were simply not in a position to escape, as the part of the ship in which they were located had already listed too much.) Had the Coast Guard known that hundreds of passengers were still inside the ship, or that the Crew never told the passengers to evacuate, they may have made a different decision and ventured into the inside of the ship, saving more people. Although it would have been very dangerous for the Coast Guard to approach the main cabin door, it was not impossible.

Ultimately, it came down to the fact that the rescue team simply did not have enough time. The Coast Guard began the rescue at 9:35 a.m. Slightly more than 20 minutes later at 9:56 a.m., the Sewol had listed 90 degrees on the left side, trapping everyone on the left. At 10:06 a.m., the Coast Guard saw passengers screaming inside a ship's cabin. The Coast Guard broke the window, and rescued seven passengers from inside the cabin. Those seven were the only ones rescued from inside the ship. The Coast Guard had no divers, and not enough people to keep breaking glass.

The last text message from inside the ship, sent by a Danwon High School student, was transmitted at 10:17 a.m. At 10:31 a.m. the Sewol capsized completely, taking everyone inside with it.

*              *              *

Part III will discuss how various political and social actors of Korea, including the disaster managers, the President, politicians, the media, and ordinary citizens reacted after the sinking of the Sewol.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Thank you for this excellent post.

  2. I get teary-eyed every time I hear about that tragic voyage. As hard for me it is to read your account of this tragedy, I can't image how difficult it must have been for The Korean to write it. Thank you for having the strength to present this to us.

  3. Thank you for posting this and giving us a non-sensational account of what happened. It was hard for me to read the previous post and this one, and see how preventable the whole thing was. I'll link my blog to your post.

  4. So it was the convergence of many typical Korean things: wacky Christian cults, greedy businessmen, clever operators, government collusion and corruption, cutting corners, labor exploitation, avoidance of responsibility, and unimaginable incompetence. Hooray, Korea! Fighting!

    1. Those are not particularly Korean characteristics. For example, you can study the Chernobyl disaster and subsequent evacuation. Officials sucked all the way, heroes of the day were brave firemen who sacrificed their lives to put down the fire while radiation was killing them. Well, granted, wacky Christian cult was missing from that disaster.

    2. The КПСС could probably be classified as a "wacky...cult".

  5. Thank you for gathering up all the information about the Sewol incident and summarizing it in English to non-Korean speakers like myself. Words can't describe how upsetting I am after reading your posts. I can't stop tearing up every time I watch the news about this incident. I remember seeing the image of the Sewol when it was listing when I first heard of the news, and thinking to myself "what the heck are the people at the scene...why were there more effort into documenting/recording the event instead of saving the people inside the ship?!" I'm still appalled such incident could happen in this day and age, especially to a country like South Korea. How can those people involved in the incident be so selfish???!!!! The CREW must have niece/nephew, son/daughter, brother/sister, parents, or grandchildren like the could they just abandon the victims like victims were could they not thought for a second before saving their asses or making calls to the operator that any one of the victims could have been their loved one. The most upsetting thing is everyone inside inside the ferry were told to stay put. What I don't understand is why the junior crew members kept ordering the victims to stay put when the boat is listing --- screw what the manual says, common sense/instinct would tell anyone that if a boat/ship is tilting, move to a higher place...why didn't the crew members tell the victims to move to a higher place, especially when they know majority of the people are in the lower deck, is appalling and confusing to me.

    1. Some other maritime disasters tell the same story of irresponsible behavior by captains and/or crews. See the "Medusa" wreck in 1816, the sinking of the "Arctic" in 1854, or the "Morro Castle" fire in 1934. We have this image of self-sacrificing conduct courtesy of the "Titanic", but the reality has often been very different.

    2. To respond to your question about why you don't understand why the junior crew members kept ordering the victims to stay put while the boat was listing, this is my explanation: Confucian hierarchy - including age differences, inability to think critically and solve problems (not part of the Korean education system), and inability to take responsibility for one's own actions and decisions are why those junior crew members did as they were told. As for the extreme cowardice, corruption and selfishness of the elder crew members, that too embodies everything that is wrong about Korea when it comes to public safety and critical thinking skills: these guys were just thinking about their own skins. Add to that the overall corruption, greed and degree of lying, and you will understand why South Korea - though a democracy - still has a long way to go to root out corruption, incompetence and to improve its safety record. (The same problem of hierarchy and age and lack of critical thinking ability in dangerous situations is what caused the Asiana airlines crash in San Francisco a few months ago). That being said, it insenses me that this could have ALL been prevented. My hat goes off to the Korean author of this article for laying out the key factors and players in this tragedy.

    3. DanaidV,

      That's nothing but an oversimplified and rather smug expression of cultural superiority that's masked as some kind of analysis. In the later parts of his analysis, TK is sure to lay the smackdown on such lazy thinking.

      The West tries to explain whittle down everything that Asians, even Asian AMERICANS, do to this all-consuming but vague idea known as Confucianism. It's a complex philosophy, but it's become a convenient shorthand for Westerners to dismiss Asians as unthinking and unfeeling robots who can never equal Americans or Europeans when it comes to actually being empathetic humans. In times of great geopolitical and economical shifts, I'm certain that such a self-serving belief is soothing.

      It's not as if these types of disasters are endemic to Asia. There have been many disasters in the U.S. where people obeyed authorities to their great detriment. People stayed in the WTC because the people around them told them to. People stayed in New Orleans because authorities didn't give them the evacuation order. People believed that Iraq was this immediate threat of Biblical proportions because the authorities said so.

      Your very post is contradictory in that you accuse Koreans to being slavishly devoted to authority, yet in the next, you accuse them of being extremely selfish. So Koreans are people who mindlessly take orders from higher ups, yet they're also only concerned with doing what's good for themselves?

      Nice try.

    4. CJL--

      I agree and disagree. The fail to evacuate the second WTC tower after the plane struck the first tower was not a case of the authorities failing to follow procedure; rather they were faced with a situation that no "procedure" could anticipate -- the true black swan... Doing all possible to evacuate an obviously sinking ship is definitely part the procedure for the crew of any ship and this crew failed miserably. So I would not use this example. In addition to not showing the incompetence of the authorities, it does not show greed as a major contributing factor. Your other examples are better but also fail to bring together all the factors present here -- staying on a sinking ship is a certain death sentence, deciding to ride out a hurricane at home usually is not... And Iraq is in a whole different category.

      However you are right that the West has it's fair share of tragedies with similar root causes as this very poignant tragedy at sea: take for instance the night club fire in Rhode Island at "The Station" : greed (cheap outdoor fireworks used indoors by the band, cheap foam insulation used for soundproofing that was not fire safe), incompetence/negligence by the authorities who did not enforce the laws (a sprinkler system should have been mandatory but was never installed as the fire department did not realize it was required), and incompetence by the club helping to evacuate once the fire started (bouncers apparently blocked some of the exits and did not help folks to the various exits) all contributed to the loss of 100 young lives just over 10 years ago. That list of factors should sound sadly familiar...

      So yes indeed no one should be smug. That said, it is hard to believe though that in a developed country like Korea, the operators of such a large passenger vessel could get away with breaking so many rules and cutting so many corners for so long. Safety at sea has a long tradition and usually a large vessel would be manned by a seasoned crew who would also have the trust and respect of the owners (if the captain reported the ship unsafe the owner would normally be concerned!). This article was the best that I have seen in explaining how they were able to slip through the cracks despite being egregiously bad and how the crew was not as seasoned as one would expect. I hope that through this sad loss of young life that essential lessons are learned that should prevent this from happening again. If that is the case this will at least be remembered as turning point in marine safety in Korea, just as the Station Fire forced many changes in fire codes for clubs here. However nothing will bring bad the many young souls who perished needlessly and for them I grieve with Korea.

    5. The ship did sink, the captain was incompetent. It now looks like the crew was incompetent, the ship company was too. As was the coast guard and the government's management of maritime operations and rescue. And yesterday a rescue diver just died, on what is now an obviously far overextended, dangerous, and , yes, incompetent ongoing rescue operation.

      The Sewol sinking is part of a long line of Korean disasters. BTW, I don't know if there are more disasters in Korea than say the USA- factoring in per capita developement, population density, business/govermental experience with modern infrastructure. For all I know, Korea may better than the USA when man-made disasters are viewed in total context.

      What's glaring about the Sewol sinking is that there are things the crew itself could have done in the first many (not few) minutes to prevent the imprisoning of the passengers. I wouldn't blame this on Confucian hierarchy, which is like blaming US bridge collapses on Christianity, but I wonder if Koreans aren't overly deferential in standing up to the people in power.

      (Usual stuff about how great Korean developement, communalism, traditions, Han, etc. is. All off which I truly believe).

    6. Stephan Meier,

      Yes, the analogies aren't perfect. However, you make the big assumption that the students KNEW that the ship was irreversibly sinking when they were told to stay in the lower levels. Chances are that when they were hesitant about escaping, they were still under the impression that the situation wasn't as serious as it was.

      Nevertheless, the whole "Blame Korean Confucianism" angle falls apart when one asks why the captain and crew didn't adhere so strictly to authorities when it came to their own behavior. Obviously, there were laws and orders set in place for when such a disaster happened. The captain and many of the crew DISOBEYED these protocols, which is why they are facing criminal charges. Where's the slave-like obedience to Confucian values in their case?

      There's a severe cognitive dissonance here: the captain and crew were selfishly rule-breaking, while the students were foolishly rule-abiding. If Koreans are so consumed with obeying authorities even to their own detriment, why didn't the captain and crew do that as well? Or is there a certain age at which Koreans suddenly disavow their robotic deference to authorities and become Randian self-preservers? Since Korean air pilots, who are presumably not high schoolers, were also accused of being too Confucian, it seems that if there is such an age, it goes well into one's 30s and 40s.

      In short, it seems as though it's mostly a case of people choosing to selectively apply a preconceived notion when it fits, and completely ignoring it when it doesn't.

    7. CJL--

      Well put. I do agree that oversimplifying is flawed and you correctly point out that there is some selective applying of a notion , in particular: "confucianism has trained people to blindly follow authority"... I would agree that is not the crux of this issue though I think it does have an indirect role (see end of my post).

      As I pointed out this tragedy has many root causes : greed (owners), incompetence (both the crew and the authorities who seem to not have enforced existing regulations), and corruption (clearly there was more going on than just incompetence on the part of some of the authorities given the many problems that were routinely being swept under the rug). Absent any one of these the disaster would not have happened or at least the majority of the passengers would have been rescued.

      Is any of this particular to "Korean culture" or "Korean mindset"? I would say no, and yet I would also say a similar accident is extremely likely to occur in another developed country. Sadly this accident does not seem to be a highly improbable "black swan" kind of accident (e.g. freak rogue wave) but a disaster waiting to happen... Unexpected waves, minor mechanical failure, a small crew mistake, etc all could have resulted in the ship having capsized on a prior voyage, given how top-heavy the modified ship was and how routinely it was being massively overloaded...

      So the real question to ask is what about Korea allowed such a terrible operator of a terrible LARGE passenger ship staffed by a terrible crew to keep operating, whereas (I claim) in another developed country, such a large vessel would not be able to get away with such flagrant flouting of both the laws and frankly maritime common sense for so long? To be fair, I would say that similar failures at multiple levels could occur in a developed country with a very small vessel where the number of people involved is much smaller. As an operation gets larger, and larger number of folks become involved, the law of large numbers should ensure that among that large set of people, some are honest and competent and will 'call out' the extreme failings of the operation to the relevant authorities (both within the largish company needed to operate such a large vessel and the large number of authorities involved in the regulation of such large vessels), and at least some of the authorities will recognize this is serious and act.

      I frankly do not know the answer to that but find it an interesting question. I would postulate that (as I have read elsewhere), Korea's advance to modernity has happened much more rapidly than in other countries, and has been inconsistent, and thus in certain areas Korea still more closely resembles a third world country (where I would argue, such disasters with similar and equally extreme root causes sadly do occur periodically).

      I do agree with you that the fact that the high school students respected authority is NOT a sign of anything other than the fact that they were very young folks with not fully developed "adult" brains sadly not old enough to sense when common sense should take over and it is time to ignore the 'instructions' from the crew. I suspect that would play out much the same most places in the world, and where it did not it would likely be due to a few "leadership" personalities rising to the occasion and saving others (and to be fair I think a few did here too!). So my hypothesis on the root causes of this is that is more related to the rapid pace of modernization of Korea (which has resulted in leaders who did not grow up in the society Korea is today or with the values Korea holds today) than to Confucianism... Confucianism would thus only play an indirect role to the extent it was a factor in how that older generation was brought up and did not encourage them to be 'critical thinkers'.

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  6. Thank you for that post! Well documented! Even if I read again and again how things happened, I can't believe how it is possible an accident like the Sewol tragedy occurred. I just feel angry.

  7. Thank you for this very thorough report. Have you ever considered writing a column for a newspaper?

  8. This is another case of the ugly side of capitalism. All to often when there is no tight regulations to control, entrepreneurs would find ways to make money with very little regards for human lives or tragic consequences. Unfortunately, this happens world over even in the USA.

  9. Excellenty post, good research and first class pulling data together

  10. Reading this was quite painful as I am sure it was painful for you to write. Thank you.

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  12. Excellent Post. However, I would like to point out that the repeating of the sentence 'The Park administration was content to keep this trend going' seems to be a TYPO.

  13. Thank you! This is such a comprehensive post, with plenty of explanation. I have OK Korean, and everything here seems spot on with way more nuance than my Korean could garner. So may of us expats are still in shock. This really helps to further our understanding and helps answer a lot of questions. I appreciate your efforts. I am sure reading and translating wasn't easy, but it is much appreciated.

  14. Thank you for the hard work! For someone that doesnt speak Korean and can only rely on translations in English -which is not my native language- is somewhat hard to find/understand detailed information like the one you provided here. For the past month or so, I've slammed the keyboard, tried to close the windows several times not wanting to read more about the tragedy and even found myself yelling/talking to the monitor like a real wacko thinking how ALL this could have been avoided. Since day 1 I couldnt understand why there were SO many -at that time- "missing people" when a ship needs some time to sink and that precious time might be enough to get most people on deck at least. I even thought it was local news' misreporting but sadly it was the truth. And now, seeing the bigger picture with this shady company's monkey business -and the fact that for saving a few wons they have bought their tickets straight to jail and hell- is more than I could have imagined. No one really wanted to do a thing! Period. Its just infuriating! Even when they knew things were serious, that the ship would sink and that people on the cabins wouldnt survive down there. They could but they didnt, thats beyond incompetence. The moment they didnt answer the junior's crew, they knew exactly what they were doing.

  15. It does seem like we have better-developed concepts of life safety here in the US — though we aren't perfect by any means. However, here in the US the corporate officers would never face criminal charges, not even for one second, never mind how culpable they actually are. Now I'm guessing in the ROK that the arrests of company officials are primarily for show and that if convicted of any crime they'll either serve no time or a very short sentence — like in the Sampoong collapse of '95 — but here in the United States of America™, we wouldn't even get that.


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