Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Sewol Tragedy, One Year On

Today, one year ago, the Sewol ferry sank off the southwestern coast of Korea, claiming more than three hundred lives. TK's series discussing the accident is below:

Based on the information that was uncovered since TK has written the post, Parts I and II contain some revision. The biggest revelation was that the Coast Guard responded negligently. For nine minutes after arrival, the Coast Guard was unaware that hundreds of passengers were still inside the ship. Because the Coast Guard made no effort to rescue the passengers from inside the ship in that precious time period, dozens of lives that could have been saved were lost. Kim Gyeong-il, the captain of the responding Coast Guard, was sentenced to four years in prison due to the dereliction of duty

*                 *                  *

There is no good way to respond to a sudden, and completely avoidable, death of more than three hundred lives, most of which belonged to young children. Even with the best response, the lost lives are not regained. But the striking part of the past year has been just how poorly Korean government, and in particular the President Park Geun-hye's administration, responded to the tragedy.

Imagine the United States, a week after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Information started appearing that the George W. Bush administration was utterly incompetent in detecting the threat by Osama Bin Laden, to a point that the attack really should have never happened in the first place. Families of the victims, outraged by the avoidable loss of their loved ones, began blaming the government. 

Now imagine if the Bush administration responded by shutting out the families, and planting CIA agents to monitor any subversive activities. The Republican faithful, sensing that their president was under attack, begin clamoring that the families should just get over it; all the mourning was putting a damper on domestic spending, hurting the economy. For the next year, the government does its best trying to pretend the 9/11 attacks never happened.

This is essentially what happened for the last year in Korea. The Sewol tragedy was one version of the 9/11 attacks, in that the entire nation saw hundreds of lives perishing real time on television. The collective trauma that Korea suffered was no less than the same that the U.S. suffered in 2001. Yet, facing this once-a-generation national tragedy, the Park Geun-hye administration responded to the tragedy in the worst way possible. The Park administration saw the social unrest following the tragedy as a threat to its power, rather than the natural expression of collective grief. Instead of taking active leadership to heal the nation, the administration did everything it could to paint the victims' family as greedy money-grabbers who were trying to profit from the deaths of their loved ones.

Incredibly, this shit worked. Korea's right-wing, which looks back on the dictatorship period of President Park's father with fond nostalgia, was happy to buy into the ridiculous idea that the victims' family were only too happy to wield their newly found power. Since the accident, nearly three-quarters of the Internet comments left on the Sewol-related news had been blaming the victims' family for asking money and other favors (which, obviously, were not true.)

Perhaps the lowest point came in late August of last year, when families of the Sewol victims began a hunger-strike to demand an investigation by special prosecutor. In one of the lowest display of sheer malice I have ever seen, members of Korea's largest conservative website organized a "gorging strike," mocking the families by essentially engaging in an eating contest of pizza and fried chicken.

Conservative Koreans engaging in "gorging strike" in front of hunger-striking families of the Sewol victims.
In the yellow test in the background, the families who lost their children were engaged in a hunger strike.
Aside from disgusting way in which the victims' families were marginalized, the most disheartening consequence of the events that followed was that no lesson was learned from the senseless tragedy. As the Sewol issue was increasingly seen as a political issue, ordinary Koreans grew tired of following the aftermath. The president and the administration played their parts, doing everything they could to pretend that the accident never happened. In a stunning display of tin-earedness, President Park Geun-hye went on a tour of South American summit meetings, declining to attend the anniversary memorial ceremony of the disaster. None of the cabinet ministers is visiting the memorial ceremony either.

As such, the most obvious lesson that should have been learned from the Sewol tragedy--public safety--has been completely forgotten. The administration established a new Ministry of Public Safety and Security, but it could not even get enough staffing to function properly. The victims' families, blinded by the pain of their tremendous wound, are stuck with protesting the government and demanding the ship to be taken out of the water. In the meantime, safety accidents on school grounds increased by 11 percent since 2014. On October 17, 2014, only six months after the Sewol tragedy, the grate covering a massive air vent at an outdoor concert venue collapsed, killing 16 K-pop concert-goers.

As with many Koreans, my mood at this one year anniversary is grim. There does not seem to be an upward trajectory. I pray for the souls of those who were so senselessly lost. I am angered that I cannot do much more.

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  1. How does an society expect to be so calleous?

  2. It's true that the Park administration has handled things poorly.

    But I'm not so sure that it's a bad thing that the president and the cabinet decided to be far away from the memorial ceremony. Considering the current political climate with corruption scandals to boot, she and her cabinet members would have to show up with an army of riot police who will have to stand between them and the grieving families and mourners, who let's face it, don't like the president or her people very much (for understandable reasons). It will be a media circus for all the wrong reasons.

    Being far away and letting people mourn without being aggravated any further than they already are seems like it was the least bad decision the president could have made about the ceremony.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. @ John Lee

    Except that the Park administration raised police forces and is using them against the nonviolent mourners at this very moment.

  5. what shocked me the most was that they say theyll lift the ship NOW... I seriously just stared at my cellphone reading that article for like 10 minutes with my mouth wide open because I couldnt understand that action... NOW you "say" you would do something...?

    Its so sad that I'm miles away from Korea, im not Korean, tried to find all the translated info I could related to the tragedy to see if the government did something and even yesterday, I was like "its been one year since the Sewol tragedy" but then the President, after doing NOTHING and acting like the tragedy never happened, goes to another country on the anniversary but says she'll lift the ship in a way that comes across as an effort to taking the families off her back...

    Its infuriating and I've seen this kind of conduct work in my country too with people praising things they said were wrong before and justifying incompetence, the President running to any country he can to not deal with complaints and much more.

  6. Thank you for all the information, this is the most accurate report I've found about. It's unbelievable how it's still going with the government. I cannot think about all those victims without feeling my stomach contorting. Victims not of the disaster but of unreasonable humans... such the dumbest way to die. I'm on the other side of the world, but I cannot ignore this; it makes me want to give my life the best and most useful sense, for the innocent ones who couldn't anymore.

  7. I've been living in Korea all this time and I've been following the news directly from their mass media aka television channels.

    Dunno, I got the feeling there's a mafia-like organisation or something like that behind the whole story. Let's remind ourselves the ship sank a day or two before Easter last year (Christ's resurrection, quite a symbolic day to die), the owner of the company of the ship was a fake priest and stinking rich and the whole family was involved and in the end he was found dead and the causes were a mystery.
    Now, we have religion, lots of money, accidents, mysterious death and politics involved. Isn't it suspicious? Look how the big players are trying to distance themselves from the whole case. Makes it even more suspicious.

    Well, don't wanna start conspiracies, but as a European myself, to me - that looks like some mafia's secret action.

    And the citizens, as they showed some interviews of random people on TV yesterday, seemed to had been ready to forgive the president if she had shown up and shown some compassion or something. Although, in my opinion, they expect too much from the government, from the president, who's just a human being like each of us. But then, I'm sceptical about any governments, so...

  8. This has been the best post in the whole history of AskAKorean, in my opinion. It is well-written, passionate, a bit bitter but true to the core.

    I have nothing to add, everything is pretty much has been said at this point. The worst part is that tragedies like Sewol CAN happen again.

    I only have one more thing to add: the owner, who was found dead. Was he really dead? Did somebody verify that he was indeed the owner and he was indeed dead? Maybe I watched way too many Kdramas, maybe I am just being paranoid and a bit naive, but rich people in power, who hire others to serve time in jail for them, etc. can find a way to wriggle out of that one. How do we know the guy is not enjoying himself in the Maldives while somebody else was found dead instead of him (if dead at all)?

    Also, about President Park. Even though it sounds great (the first woman president in a patriarchal society, before the U.S.) but something is clearly wrong there. Is it her or is it the system on the whole?

    1. Yep, he is dead. The question was how, why and by whom. I dunno, however, how this case was, and if is at all, concluded. You also have to consider that rich people have a lot of enemies, who are usually just as rich or even richer. So, unless they caught his murderer who made it look like a possible suicide, it might be him/her the one enjoying themselves in the Maldives.

      The problem is, of course, in the system as a whole. Politics is a "game" conducted by many people, many parties, many actors etc. and, even though the president might have the authority to invent new or change old laws, even if she/he (speaking in general) is the most honest person who ever walked on Earth, it is logical that it takes longer than the mandate of a politician to make serious changes in the whole system. It's a legacy and the president is just a small actor in the whole story.

  9. I guess the bottom line is Koreans are nationalistic assholes, totally devoid of compassion for their own kind let alone foreigners. I should know, I lived there for 6 years.

    Koreans are an ethnic group that you can safely stereotype; 99.9% are cunts. Yes they had a tough history. So did Poland yet you don't see Poles behaving in such a despicable manner.

  10. I mean mocking the bereaved families in such a callous manner? Even the Nazi's, who many of my ex Korean students openly idolized, wouldn't stoop so low.

    I must admit it doesn't surprise me. There really is something intrinsically evil about Korea and Koreans. I lived there for so long, I'm qualified to weigh in on this. I also don't understand the 'Korean Wave' and growing foreign fascination with the country. If such people knew what brutal, callous, sanctimonious, superficial and materialistic people they are I'm sure they'd quickly lose interest.

  11. I actually ended up marrying a Chinese woman and spent much time in China. I expected more of the same but no, the Chinese are nice people.

    Its just the Koreans (who are cunts). Even seeing hangul some 6 years after leaving that place makes me break out in a cold sweat.

  12. Gus, looks like you've got a particularly bad experience.
    First, I agree with your points about having harsh histories, but then, which country didn't have its hard times in the 20th century? The problem is in the present, not in the past. And even bigger of a problem is when they hide the present with the past, which is pretty much the political situation here.

    I agree Korea should change their attitude towards politics in a cultural way. And I agree they have really been massively brainwashed by the capitalist ideals. Not to mention censorship, man, TOO MUCH of it.

    However... It has been almost 5 years of living in Seoul. Through attending university, living with a Korean man, social interaction I've got the chance to meet and hear from various kinds of people. It's not like they're evil or something, they're just very oppressed by their own government. And when I say "government", I don't mean only president Park, I mean the whole thing. And I mean BOTH the right AND the left wing.

    As for the Korean Wave being so largely popular, you have to consider it is based on aesthetics. Everybody likes what's pleasant to their eyes.

  13. Thanks for your perspective Dac.

    I lived in Incheon and Seoul for 6 years an as ESL teacher and was subjected to things I never expected in today's world. Particularly in a so called developed country. I still have nightmares about them now. I won't recount them all here other than to say Koreans go out of their way to make life as uncomfortable as possible for foreigners. They don't want us, they're not afraid to show it and the government actually promotes this religious like ethno nationalism. As we know, such Nazi like fanaticism was an important tool in building the economy and post Korean war reconstruction. BUT the Poles, who had their country torn asunder by both the Germans and the Russians and suffered the holocaust as well (and have more reason to hate foreigners than the Koreans) haven't declared virtual war on everyone not of their blood.

    As an Anglo Australian my treatment was bad, I was often called 'dongmal' (animal), wonsungi (monkey) and any K woman I was walking with was almost routinely called a 'Chanya' (slut). I was served half frozen Big Mac's in McDonalds, ignored by taxi's not allowed into clubs not served in shops, etc, etc. This is despite the fact I was, naively, interested in Korean culture and learned basic Korean. That was a mistake. If you learn Korean as a foreigner you'll only understand the dreadful things they say about you right in front of you on a daily basis. Ignorance truly is bliss in Korea.

    However what I saw happen to non white foreigners was pure evil. I had a colleague at my language school, an African American from New York. What he was subjected to beggars belief. Once, we were on a subway together and he was with his Korean girlfriend, holding hands. I immediately felt unease. I knew the Koreans would not abide a black man touching one of their woman in public and I was right. Suddenly he was set upon by the entire full carriage of Koreans of all age groups, beaten, kicked, spat at, called unspeakable things. Not one so called liberal Korean tried to help us despite the fact we had done nothing wrong. The girl was covered in saliva. I was beaten too for trying to intervene and we were thrown off the subway battered and bleeding. The police didn't want to know. 'The 'dongmal' should have known better than to touch our women' they said. And no hospital would admit him because 'they don't treat animals'.

    That was not the worst of it either. I recounted my experiences in a book I wrote after I left and emailed to TK. He didn't see fit to review it for me.

    Sadly this blood nationalism is so infused in the Korean psyche that they think nothing of treating other human beings with incredible cruelty. Its no coincidence that the most sadistic excesses committed by Japanese soldiers against Allied POW's and civilians weren't Japanese at all. They were Korean.

    Korean Americans are not this way as TK has proven. But he should be more active in opposing 'Korean Nazism'. There's no excuse for it. As the Sewol tragedy showed, the Koreans don't even have any compassion for members of their own 'divine' race who fail to tow the line.

    1. I second guitard. I call bullshyt too.

    2. I second guitard. I call bullshyt too.

    3. Why doesn't that surprise me?

      Koreans never like to hear the truth about their country. They get defensive and irate every time. Whether you believe me or not, I exaggerated or fabricated nothing. Every word I wrote was truth. Kyopos would not understand because as they're of Korean blood they wouldn't be subjected to the racism Caucasians and other non Koreans routinely are.

      Its about time Koreans started facing reality about the awful 'Nazism' and xenophobia which has gone on for far too long.

      Face reality guys. Even TK, who is of Korean ethnicity, knows I speak the truth.

    4. I've yet to meet a single home grown Korean who has the detachment to acknowledge and accept any criticism of their country whether it warranted or not. They feel there's nothing wrong with treating non Koreans like sub humans and can't see what all the fuss is about. Yet, strangely enough, when the encounter anything approaching racism in Western countries when they travel abroad they scream blue murder.

      'How dare you speak to me like that, I'm Korean' or 'I am a Korean man, you will respect me!'. I don't know how many times I've heard this.

    5. Why would I lie, guys?

      What reason could I possibly have to fabricate my experiences in Korea?

      I'd love to be able to tell the world that Koreans are a warm, accepting, tolerant and benevolent people. I'm sure the Germans during the 1930's thought the same thing...............

  14. I just think the Koreans have gotten away with such institutionalized racism for far too long.

    Can anyone imagine a western, predominantly white country getting away with such barbarity? They'd be boycotted and excommunicated from the world community much like Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia was.

    Why the double standard? Why must the West have endure having multiculturalism imposed on it while the Koreans, Japanese and Chinese don't?

    I would dare not even take my Eurasian children to Korea.

  15. I will add that TK seems like a cool and open minded guy. Why aren't Koreans like him?

    I'll tell you why. TK isn't Korean, he's American.

  16. Man, I'm sad to hear about all that. What I experience here is very different. Makes me wonder when it was that you lived here, because it is possible that the society here is showing some improvement in respect to what you're describing. Also, I feel things have improved in this respect at all in comparison with five years ago, when I just came here as well. But then, I haven't tried living nowhere other than Seoul...
    It might also be possible that they percieve me differently because I'm a woman.

    Anyway, yes, sometimes I think we caucasians permit too much discrimination towards ourselves and our cultures because "we are racists by default", sadly, in the eyes of many individuals from specific ethnic groups. And to make things worse, we cannot even deny that we have Neo-nazzis and groups alike in Europe too (because I'm European, just for your information if you didn't know that already, precisely, from Croatia).
    And yes, I learnt Korean quite quickly. Sometimes people talked "behind my back" and I would throw a few suspicious looks at them every now and then to make them understand they should be careful. For now I was always too shy to actually join their conversations (and in Korean, of course, I love to shock people out), but I just may the next time it happens, for now I'm older and more confident. Good thing is, however, this didn't and still doesn't happen often enough and I hope it won't in the future either. But one more thing I noticed is that they get friendlier and open to you more once they see you can speak their language. Talking in general, of course, there were attempts of strangers talking to me in English on purpose because they wanted to practise or show off or for any other reason. Yeah, there were a few cases of men trying to flirt just because of my "western face", but most of times they'd leave me alone when I'd aknowledge them about my relationship.

    On the other hand, some people are a little too friendly with me and sometimes I feel as if they try hard to compensate, or reverse the racism. Like... "see me, I LOVE foreigners, I'm not racist, I don't wanna be one, I'm open minded". And then there is a religious group of people from a particular sect that seems to love targeting foreigners to join them. Good thing they haven't been seen around anymore lately. Or maybe I just learnt how to avoid them successfully.

    Despite these things, I actually managed to get a few more friends other than my boyfriend (whom I met back in my country, while he was visiting as a tourist, but that's another story, and oh, btw. he's from Incheon), although I'm a bit of an introvert myself, and I've managed to meet people who really do appreciate different cultures and all that. Recently, due to a documentary and a few reality shows, my country has become so unexpectedly popular that when I say "Croatia", they fill me with compliments.

    The average, however, seems, in my impression, as merely indifferent, rather than offensive or hating.

    I feel and hope the general racism really is fading away, rather than getting hidden "underneath the rugs", and I'd like to believe it will eventually decrease even more with time.
    I do feel a little worried, however, about my joining my boyfriend's family someday soon. I can't deny that. I met his sister and his mother. But not his father, I've heard he's strict and conservative. His mother seemed to have nothing against it, I guess the fact both of my parents are teachers by profession helped me here a little, you know Koreans care a lot about one's family background (now, I dunno what happens once I get more involved, God knows what will be when and if we have a baby, but my boyfriend is confident about it, so I'll trust), as for his sister and brother-in-law, I left pretty much of a good impression.
    Well, good luck to me.

  17. I'm always curious as to why some Westerners who go to teach English abroad complain so much about it. Aren't you there by choice? If you hate it, leave when your contract is up and never return again. Calling an entire country of people "cunts" -- and supposedly being qualified to say this because you taught English there for six or more years -- dilutes your anger. Who the hell chooses to stay somewhere where they are clearly unhappy (and supposedly unwanted and mistreated)?

    1. Well, to be fair, I did love soju and samgyopsal on a hot Summer night.......

      Fair question, but I didn't have any perspective then, Jae. Korea was my first foreign country and I kinda assumed that all foreign places must be like this, inhospitable and implacably hostile. It wasn't until I traveled further did I realize this wasn't the case.

      I married a Chinese woman and also lived in China. While China has its problems, its like NIGHT and DAY compared to Korea. People were warm and friendly and I didn't get lynched just for walking in public with a Chinese woman (my wife) nor did she get called a slut.

      Not all Koreans are cunts, I did meet the occasional 00.1% who are not.

  18. You might want to talk about them pepper spraying the families at Gwangwhamun square and the police barricade. I was there a few days afterwards and the police presence was still ridiculous.

  19. Koreans inhumanity to man.

    Nationalism is an evil entity as it divides human beings. Nothing will change until the criminal pride of koreans is vanquished.

  20. Koreans inhumanity to man.

    Nationalism is an evil entity as it divides human beings. Nothing will change until the criminal pride of koreans is vanquished.

    1. What a mystery. You have an intense hatred of Koreans due to trauma and yet you go on this site run by a korean to proselytize this evilness of his own ethnicity. Do you expect this missionary job or hobby to cleanse you of your traumatic experience? Why subject yourself to this hatred and fear? You should go see a doctor to deal with your ptsd unless the doctor told you to vent your anger like this. Or better yet, bury the memory and move on. Your revelation is not helping a cause with cursings and racism.

    2. A.R, I don't hate Korea or Koreans but I think its ubiquitous racism and xenophobia is an issue which needs to be confronted. Since when did any country solve its problems by refusing to even acknowledging them?

      It was never my intention to denigrate TK (I like the guy and his blog) but I think he would be the first to admit that Korea has a major problem with ultra nationalism which manifests itself as extreme racism and xenophobia. This is due to the fact that Korea and Koreans still define themselves exclusively by blood. This is obviously very wrong. Long term foreign residents in Korea have to deal with the consequences of this on a daily basis. Many Korean apologists, including almost all Koreans and even some western expats, prefer to ignore the issue and extolling the virtues of Korea and Koreans. They seem intent on portraying Korea exclusively in a positive light and become incensed when anyone draws attention to Korea's dark side. Why is this so? If a western (predominantly white) country even has the appearance of racism the whole world jumps on it and exaggerates it. For example, my country Australia has a reputation for racism but in reality its a tolerant, multicultural country where Aussies judge others on the content of their character and their actions, not their blood and ethnicity. My Chinese wife has lived in Australia for 7 years and has never once experienced racism or any kind of prejudice. Any non Korean who managed to survive in Korea for even half that period will have horror stories rivalling mine whether they want to share them or not.

      Whether I have PTSD as a result of mine time in Korea is immaterial. What I want to know is why Korea has hitherto avoided scrutiny and sanctions for its appalling treatment of minorities and why the Nazi like education system which indoctrinates young Koreans and teaches them to hate foreigners remains unchanged?

      Is this reverse racism? Why are people so protective of Korea?

      'We have to behave with honesty, decency, loyalty and comradeship towards those of our own blood and to no one else'

      Heinrich Himmler

      Nothing sums up Korea's race relations and Koreans perception of how they should regard foreigners better than a quote by a rabid and evil Nazi, leader of the SS.

      Why is this so and why are people unwilling to call Korea on it? Evil needs to be confronted.

  21. By the way, anyone is free to offer any kind of critique or criticism of my homeland, Australia.

    If its true, I will readily accept and acknowledge it. For example, Australia treated its indigenous custodians, the aboriginals' absolutely appallingly right up until the 1970's. They weren't even regarded as citizens of a land they'd occupied for 40,000 years until 1972.

    However Australia has learned from this and enacted legislation against prejudice on the basis of race, ethnicity, religious faith, gender, and sexual orientation. Look up the 'Racial Discrimination Act 1975'. Rare, progressive Koreans attempted to pass similar laws recently but they were not ratified.

    The Koreans don't want to have 'their right' to discriminate on the basis of race denied them.


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