Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Sewol Tragedy: Part III - The Fallout

The capsized Sewol

One cannot get away from events in this age; the 24-hour news coverage and the Internet would not allow it. The Sewol disaster unfolded in real time in front of a horrified nation. When more than 300 lives--vast majority of them children--senselessly perish in an entirely preventable accident, it cannot help but affect the public. Similar reaction occurred in the United States, following the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in which dozens of young children died at the hands of a deranged shooter. 

But as horrific as it was, the Newtown shooting was over within an hour. Not so with the Sewol sinking. The ship sank for more an hour. The rescue effort subsequently unfolded for days, on live television. In the aftermath of the disaster, every last bit of incompetence from every corner of Korean society was magnified, amplified. It drove Koreans toward self-loathing, cynicism, and finally anger toward the political system.

What do You do When Everything Falls Apart?

The saying goes:  failure is an orphan, but success has a million parents. But in the Sewol disaster, the devastating failure had a million parents:  the captain who abandoned the ship, the ferry company that dangerously overstocked the ship, government that let deregulation run wild. Unfortunately, the failures did not stop when the ship sank. The hits continued to come from all directions: from the media, the government and the society as a whole.

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First, the media. Purely from the perspective of mental impact, perhaps the most devastating error was the media's early reports that everyone aboard the Sewol was rescued. The cause of this error is under investigation, but it appears fairly clear that the media reported an unconfirmed rumor in the race to break the news first. This misfire significantly impacted the manner in which Korean public processed the news. When Koreans first learned the news about the Sewol sinking on the morning of April 16--around 11 a.m., 30 minutes after the ship completely capsized--they took it as a mildly scary event with no true harm done. The complacency set by the encouraging news made the full scale of the true horror much more destructive. Instead of no casualty, there were more than 300 missing, most of them high school students.

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In the hours following the sinking, the media landscape in Korea was the lowest circle of hell in disaster porno. Because the Internet age came to Korea earlier than virtually any other country in the world, the issues that the Internet age created have affected Korea for longer, and more severely. The worst instincts for clickbaiting and sensationalism afflicted every part of the media, from tabloids to the more respected papers.

Newsis, an up-and-coming online newspaper infiltrated Danwon High School, and took a staged photo of a dead student by setting up an open notebook on the desk. Chosun Ilbo--the conservative newspaper that prides in its ability to steer Korean public opinion on any given issue--released an article discussing which insurance companies insured the Sewol, and what the expected payout was supposed to be while the ship was still sinking. Respected TV stations like SBS and jTBC harassed the freshly-rescued survivors for an interview. A reporter from SBS attempted to interview a six year old child, the rest of whose family perished in the ship. On a live television, a reporter from jTBC asked a rescued Danwon High School student if he knew his friends died, which caused the student to crumble in tears.

Second, the government. Much like the media, the government tortured the families of those aboard the Sewol as well as Korean public with a false promise: the possibility that there may be survivors in the capsized ship thanks to the supposed "air pockets." With a benefit of the hindsight, this promise was most likely illusory. Yet, if those in Korean government who were responsible for the rescue genuinely believed the possibility of air pockets, they moved far too slowly to capitalize on the opportunity.

Korea's Coast Guard did not have enough resources to rescue people from a capsizing ship, but other disaster-response authorities did. The Sewol's passenger made the first emergency call to the Coast Guard at 8:52 a.m. But the Coast Guard did not inform the Ministry of Public Security and Administration--which had more sophisticated rescue ships and helicopters to deploy--until 9:30 a.m. In fact, the Ministry first learned the accident from the television news rather than its subordinate. It was not until 9:31 a.m. until the Blue House was notified. By then, the ship was three minutes away from the point at which no escape was possible.

Further, the initial report to the government said nothing to indicate that a massive disaster was unfolding; it simply said that the Sewol was sinking, and the rescue was in progress. Incredibly, even after 5 p.m.--half a day after the ship sank--it appears that President Park Geun-hye did not have a clear idea of what exactly happened. During her visit to the rescue central, the President asked why the students could not be saved if they were wearing life jackets--implying that, in her understanding, the Sewol's passengers were floating in the sea rather than trapped inside the ship.

President Park Geun-hye at the disaster central.
The President was hardly alone in not having a clear sense of exactly what happened. Until 4:30 p.m.--again, half a day after the ship sank--the rescue central could not even figure out exactly how many people were on board on the Sewol, and how many were rescued. At 2 p.m., the rescue central announced that 368 were rescued, only to halve the number at 4:30 p.m. to 164 rescued. (The final tally of rescued passengers is 174.) When the Blue House was criticized for not having adequate information about the disaster, a senior Blue House official gave a tone-deaf response that the Blue House was not the "control tower" for disasters. While technically correct, this type of response could not help but give off the impression that the government was abdicating its duty to keep people safe.

Allegations of graft and corruption also emerged even as the rescue was progressing. There were allegations that the Coast Guard prevented the Navy divers from entering the water, such that the Coast Guard's private contractor (called Undine Marine Industry) could send its divers first. This led to suspicion that the Coast Guard delayed the rescue effort for the sake of taking care of its contractor. Because the government initially represented that there might be survivors in the overturned ship, it could not avoid the severe criticism that they were wasting precious time to play favorites.

Third, the society. Nearly as soon as the news broke, the Internet trolls in Korea's cyberspace were out in full force. Within minutes after the Sewol sinking was reported on the Internet, the vilest comments imaginable began appearing on the news story. (Here is a selection of them. I will not translate.) When the picture of Park Ji-yeong (the heroic 22-year-old crew member who drowned after saving dozens of children) appeared on the news, scores of god-awful lewd comments appeared below. It came to a point where Naver, Korea's largest search engine, put up a notice urging its users to not add comments injuring the victims' dignity. The media packaged those trolling comments into another round of clickbait news stories, fueling further outrage.

The situation was only slightly better offline. (Actually, it is not clear if it is better or worse that people were willing to say the same crap publicly.) Jo Gwang-jak, a pastor and the vice president of the conservative Christian Council of Korea said: "The low-income kids should have gone to a cheaper destination for their school trip. Why were they on a boat to Jeju and have this happen?" (Jo later resigned after much criticism.) Kim Si-gon, the head of new reporting at KBS, suggested that the sinking of the Sewol was not a big deal because more people die from traffic accidents. The enraged families of the Sewol victims protested in front of the KBS overnight, demanding apology. (Kim later resigned.)

Families of the Sewol victims protesting in front of KBS.
Each one is holding a picture of the deceased, which is used in a Korean style funeral.
Insensitivity was only one part of the way in which Korean society turned into a monster in the face of the disaster. Soon after the news broke, Facebook and other social networking sites were flooded with photo captures of text messages and instant messages, supposedly sent by Danwon High School who were still trapped inside the ship alive. Families of the students desperately latched onto them. But they were all fake. When arrested, the fabricators of the messages said they were hoping to drive up the subscribers to their social networking site accounts so that they may later sell them.

There is an even more brazen case of celebrity-seeking. One woman, who claimed to be a rescue diver, gave a live interview with a TV station to claim that another diver heard survivors from inside the ship, but the government is letting them die by not allowing regular divers join the rescue effort. This was a lie, as she was not at all a rescue diver. (In fact, it was revealed later that the woman has a long history of lying to gain celebrity. In another instance, she claimed that she was a cousin of T-ara's Hwayoung to take pictures with idol groups.)

*             *             *

Major disaster like the Sewol sinking has not struck Korea in a decade, or two decades depending on how one qualifies a "major disaster" that is comparable to the Sewol sinking. In 2003, 192 people died in a subway fire in Daegu, but the fire was a result of an arson. To find a death-by-thousand-cuts disaster like the Sewol sinking, one may have to go back to 1995 when a department store in Seoul that illegally modified its structure collapsed, killing more than 500. By 2014, Koreans were gaining confidence that the bad old days were behind them.

The Sewol tragedy shattered that confidence. Every major institution of Korean society--the government, the media, the church, the civil society--failed to properly function in some form or another. This total failure stunned Koreans. Without any institution in which to place their trust, Korean public first recoiled in self-loathing: what were we doing, letting hundreds of young children die on an illegally modified ship? Then followed cynicism and despair: perhaps nothing can be done, because something ingrained deep inside Korea's culture that inevitably drew them toward disaster. The depression was widespread and palpable: consumer spending in Korea in the later part of April dropped like a rock, similar to the way in which Americans responded to the 9/11 terrorism.

Next came the indignation against those responsible of preventing this disaster. Why couldn't the Coast Guard save a single person from inside the ship? Why couldn't the Ministry of Public Security put together the disaster response team more quickly? And why couldn't the president figure out what was going on for more than half a day?

President Park's Katrina Moment

President Park Geun-hye had only been elected a year ago, in a solid victory after the hotly contested presidential election. Throughout the presidential campaign, the fact that she was the daughter of the late president and dictator Park Chung-hee hampered her numbers. One of the turning points of the presidential campaign was when Park courageously recognized that the reign of her father--who ruled the country for 16 years after taking power by rolling into Seoul with tanks--violated the spirit of Korea's constitution and delayed the advent of democracy in Korea. This historic apologia by Park Geun-hye played a key role in her election, as it allayed the voter's fears that Korea was not about to travel backward toward her father's dictatorship.

In its first year, however, the Park administration began assuming a dictatorial posture that was not unlike her father's. As soon as she was elected, it was uncovered that Korea's spy agency and the military were engaged in a massive operation to sway the election by adding Internet comments and sending out tweets over Twitter, amplifying the Park campaign's message. When the Supreme Prosecutor's Office began prosecuting the head of the spy agency, the Ministry of Justice ordered an audit over the SPO--which caused the Prosecutor General to resign rather than suffer the indignity.

Contrary to her campaign promise, Park began taking first steps to privitize Korea's railways. When the railway union went into a strike in protest, Park sent thousands of policemen to arrest the union leaders based on an arrest warrant that the court later quashed. When the police got the wind that the union leaders fled their offices and escaped to the building next door--which belonged to a liberal newspaper--the police took a battering ram the newspaper's offices and ransacked the premises.

The Sewol tragedy struck as the public confidence in the Park administration was on the decline. The tragedy, standing alone, was enough of a damage to the administration; one of Park's major campaign promises was to enhance public safety. Park even changed the name of the Ministry of Public Administration and Security to Ministry of Security and Public Administration, to emphasize the government's responsibility for public safety. But any support that Park garnered by leveraging the public safety angle went underwater with the Sewol.

Still, the Park administration could have handled the crisis better. But it did not. Instead, it turned toward its dictatorial instinct, treating the angered people as its enemy rather than the people whom the president was elected to represent.

The first sign of trouble occurred five days into the search process. The family of the Sewol victims, gathered in a gym in Jindo that served as a makeshift shelter for the families, became restless in anger. Someone suggested visiting the President at Blue House; immediately, a crowd of 300 formed. But they were stopped as soon as they stepped outside of the gym; a hundred policemen were waiting for them. As it turned out, the government had planted plainclothes police inside the gym to conduct surveillance on the families. The families tried to rent a bus to go up to Seoul, but the government already told all the bus companies in the area to stonewall the families. Desperate, the families began walking toward Seoul in the middle of the night, trying to cover 200 miles on foot. Nearly a thousand policemen forcibly stopped them at the bridge connecting the Jindo Island and the mainland. Even after this episode, the families of the Sewol victims came under constant surveillance by plainclothes policemen for signs of trouble.

The government also cracked down on criticism of the rescue effort, while tightening its control over the media. Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education censured an area public school teacher who criticized the president on Facebook. Program directors at television station who complained that the news was not sufficiently critical of the President were suspended. (Recall that, in Korea, the government indirectly controls two of the three network TV stations.) In fact, the government directly ordered KBS to avoid criticizing the Coast Guard and the rescue effort.

Needless to say, this is a terrible response by the Park administration. Beyond the obvious creepiness and infringement of the fundamental freedom of movement, press and speech, the Park administration's actions neatly overlapped with the malfeasance of the Sewol's captain that served as a proximate cause of the disaster: stay where you are, don't cause trouble, so that we may escape out of this jam first. Inspired by this overlap, dozens of demonstrations emerged across Korea to protest the government reaction. For the most part, the protesters marched silently, only holding up a sign that said: "Stay Put."

Silent protesters march in the Sewol's aftermath.
To her credit, President Park responded strongly. She sacked the Prime Minister (who is akin to Vice President in the U.S.,) and abolished the Coast Guard, which is to be replaced with a newer and hopefully more competent agency. Korea's Supreme Prosecutor's Office charged the Sewol's captain with murder, and is currently trying to arrest Yoo Byeong-eon, the ultimate owner of the ferry company that operated the Sewol. But Park's numbers--which was as high as 61 percent prior to the accident--continued to sink. Her choice of new Prime Minister, Ahn Dae-hee, did not even last a week before withdrawing his nomination based on the allegations that he unethically wielded his influence as a former Supreme Court Justice to steer inordinate number of cases to his law practice.

All of this amounts to a real political consequence for the president and her conservative party. In less than a week, Korea is facing local elections where Koreans elect mayors, provincial governors, etc. What should have been a conservative landslide across the board is now up in the air, with the crown jewel of Seoul mayoralty now solidly in the hands of the current, progressive mayor Park Won-soon. Even beyond the local elections, it is likely that this disaster will be the lasting image of Park Geun-hye's presidency. It is her Katrina moment.

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  1. Wow, she dismantled the Coast Guard, a maritime police force, instead of simply punishing the incompetent leaders. But at least she is going to delegate the relevant roles to the police and to the newly establishing Department for National Safety. I wonder if the Department for National Safety will end up inheriting the rest of the roles after the investigation is done.

    Call me an ultracrepidarian, but it seems like sooner or later, the new Department end up being a second Coast Guard if it's going to be functionally the same, just with a different name and with different leaders. And without politics with contractors.

    Personally, I wish she didn't choose such a wide name for new department whose function is maritime policing and naval border patrol. Unless one defines National Safety as guarding the nation from outward enemies in immediate proximity, through the two functions.

    1. In my years living in Korea, I have seen one consistent dynamic within the 'old school' culture here. I call it "fix the broken window with a hammer." If people see the glass flying, hear the loud banging, and see the sweat on your brow, nobody can criticize you for 'not doing something.' I have seen it in politics (again and again), the business culture, and in the education culture. Her "solution" to the Sewol tragedy (allegedly dismantling the Coast Guard) is in step with old guard approaches to problem solving. By the standards of her peers, she had no choice but to "fix the broken Coast Guard with a hammer." Long-term solutions and leadership accountability/checks & balances were NOT her concern... it was an act of politcal damage control.

  2. You forgot to mention the Park's "shows" for the media. One of them was when she went to the gym full of family members with the media present to record her reception there. What happened in reality was that she was shouted down by the family members and was forced to leave. The media reports of her visit then only showed the initial moments of her arrival to applause and her speech prior to the voiced criticisms.

    The second instance was her visit to the memorial set up to the children with flowers. She went there and was wandering back and forth as if waiting for something or someone. An older woman, presumably a grandmother of one of the victims, soon came up behind her and hugged her in front of the cameras. Cell cameras shot the minutes of awkward walking back and forth, but the media only saw the moment when Park was greeted and embraced by the elderly woman. It turned out that the woman had no connection to the tragedy nor its victims, and it seem as if she was brought in to play the part for Park's publicity machine, trying to make the president seem caring and more human in the public eye.

  3. I may disagree with some of your opinions sometimes, but there is no doubt you write some fantastically informative and well-written blog posts, this is another one. Good stuff.

  4. Colonel Sanders should never have left the chicken business for ships. Always a bad move.

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  6. When I saw the president and her team meeting for the tragedy, I couldn't help but let out a big SIGH!! There were nearly 300 children missing and likely dead, a national crisis on hand, and she and her team took the time to find matching boy band jackets. I have lived in Korea for 13 years, so I wasn't shocked... but REALLY (O,o)?!? Sadly, the Sewol tragedy was but one of many recent tragedies bringing to light how ill-prepared we are in Korea to deal with issues of safety, preparedness, and emergency-rescue operations. Rather than alienating workers (whose salaries and conditions are getting worse) and shuffling the cabinet (as opposed to DOING something), the Park administration should really start looking at long-term priorities and stop trying to run the country like her father (lead silently, do what you want--damn the consequences, and carry a BIG stick), whatever you think of him in hindsight. It isn't working NOW in 2014. This isn't the 1970s anymore and the challenges of depending on the global economy for national survival & prosperity are too far-reaching for strong-armed tactics in the 21st century. Adopting international standards of safety, preparedness, emergency-resue ops, and (for that matter) edcuational accountability are not some skewed form of 'foreign interference' or 'cultural colonialism:' these are all changes that make Korea stronger, safer, and more equipped for dealing with the decades ahead.

  7. I had NO idea she sent police to keep an eye on the parents and prevented them from marching... that's low... If they responded that quickly the day of the tragedy maybe things would have been different.
    Where I live some years ago, people elected a dictator's son -This person was this close from bankruptcy couldnt even pay for his own home and some years later, ironically has a construction company overseas- and just like President Park, instead of comforting his people when 2 major tragedies occurred -due to mechanical problems, a bus caught fire trapping its passengers inside killing 18 and months before that, hundreds of people were poisoned by a medicine covered by social security- he pretty much ignored both tragedies and even sent police to disperse a march of the survivors affected by the poisoned medicine because they were outside the Presidency wanting to talk to him... There's rumors about how he paid the leaders of both tragedies -allegedly supporters of his Party- so things were quiet for some time until the new president came... It happens that the President after him had to clean up his mess. For Korea's sake, I hope she can clean up her own mess instead of trying to superficially change things when the core problems -like how those in charge of taking care of citizens are as skilled and competent as a pole, shady companies get their way with help of deregulations,etc.- remain intact.

  8. This is one reason why I find Korea so interesting, and sometimes very familiar. Throughout this entire tragedy I continuously commented that this was Korea's "come to Jesus moment". A time when the Korean public should be thinking, talking and protesting if necessary about what kind of government they really want. This has exposed raw so many warts lying just beneath the surface. The perils of deregulation, the revolving door between government and industry, a captive media and the polarization of politics. No wonder it all sounded so familiar. I kept posting to people, "welcome to America". My initial thoughts were that SK had a much better chance at working through these issues than we do here in the U.S. Now I'm fairly sure that Koreans are a lot more like Americans than I initially believed. I'm not sure I find much comfort in that belief.

  9. Dear TK, you have given us a consistent report on this immense tragedy...every little detail makes sense and fills any gap and question that could possibly arise
    Incidentally, all these facts makes one reealize that people in power are as influenced by the way they were raised, as any common child is influenced by the ways of their parents and particular environment

  10. On a side note, and this is just my opinion, a woman who choses not to have children, probably has some kind of limitations fully understanding the incredibly harsh lifetime grief of surviving your young

  11. Talk about a non sequitur. Does the judgment you pass regarding politicians with inherent "limitations" apply only to women who choose to remain childless? The men, though, they're all cool, right? They can totally grieve with full mental capacity, or if not, it's still all good because they're not supposed to be maternal anyway, so you're not going to call them out. It's just the childless woman who strikes you as being problematic. Is that about right?

    Clean up the bias in your wording. Even if you're not a fan of Park Geun Hye, there are actual legitimate bones to pick rather than simply making assumptions based on her gender. Seriously, are you stupid or just a troll?

  12. Blogs and chats are different entities per definition
    TK blog is a true gem, I wouldn't ever try to mess up with
    When expressing, I always try to enhance the opinion is mine, consequently biased

  13. My conjectures are more driven by circumstances and behaviours, than directed to specific persons
    I do not mention the name of the President

  14. What I mean by people in power, does not apply necessarily to politicians, but it might
    Most of all, I am not a gender warrior, more of an observer of human nature

  15. Women and men are different as they are supposed to be
    Any conclusion taken by others has no relation to my opinion
    I respect TK and the readers of this blog, and never would I come here to write insults os less proper lines

  16. I am sorry my contribution is so fragmented but the iPad is giving me a hard time

  17. Thank you so much for this whole report. All the other places I looked at for facts were just giving me disaster porn. I know I'll never be able to understand why a thing like this happened, but at least now I understand HOW.

  18. I have to say the Korean cyberspace trolling culture sounds utterly toxic. I mean, you only have to read youtube comments (English ones) to despair of humanity, but to produce fake text messages that give false hope to bereaved parents? That's a new low.

  19. The sewol episode continues the theme of Korea adopting the US model of free market capitalism. If there is any obedience to authority, that authority would be the US. We dictate to Korea what it's foreign and trade policies will be. In the US, the market dictates the law. So Korea has adopted that principle with vigor and it's markets have profited from deregulation. The only problem is that people are expendable in that system. And it is farcical that Park campaigned on the public safety platform. That

  20. Ehh... You know, Korea was built from scratch 60 years ago. Of course things like this still happen. If America had the economy of Uganda in 1953, we'd probably have the same kinds of corruption and illegal stuff going on. Regardless, these things will continue to get better with time.

    Also to blame is fierce Korea competitiveness which drives individuals to be more selfish. The false pictures posted on Facebook are direct evidence of selfishness and deceptive personal gain despite ethical bankruptcy.

    Competition is healthy at a certain medium, and unhealthy at a certain extreme. Ironic, since Koreans are required to take a subject in school called "Ethics." I dunno.


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