Stop Blaming South Korea's Culture for Last Week's Ferry Disaster

By Jakob Dorof


Photo of the Sewol via of Wikicommons

Six days. That’s how long the capsized Sewol ferry has been submerged in the frigid waters off the coast of an island named Jindo in South Korea. That’s how long the families of the hundreds of high school students and children trapped inside have held onto the increasingly desperate hope that someone might have survived the deadly crash making headlines around the world.

It was 8:48 AM last Wednesday morning when a 25-year-old third mate made a severe turn while at the helm of the Sewol, after which a loud bang resounded throughout the ship's five floors. Captain Lee Joon-seok, 68, had left to “tend to something” in his cabin. He returned as the ship began to list and tilt. At 8:55, the Sewol crew established radio contact with harbor officials at Jeju’s vessel-traffic services (VTS), reporting that the incline was already too steep for walking. After another ten minutes passed, Jeju personnel attempted to contact their counterparts on Jindo, the island nearest to the ship. Throughout this time, Sewol’s crew repeatedly issued orders over intercom to their 476 passengers—not to evacuate, but to stay in place.

Eight minutes later, an eternity in a crisis situation, the staff of the Sewol—when asked by Jindo VTS—confirmed the ship was going to sink. At 9:14 AM, Jindo echoed Jeju’s earlier advice to begin evacuations, but Sewol again replied that the ship’s angle was prohibitive. Another ten minutes would pass before an unidentified Jindo official pressed the crew to evacuate and wear life preservers in case it took time for rescue boats to arrive. A minute later, Jindo harbor officials began to backpedal, telling Sewol staff that the decision to evacuate was their captain’s to make.

“We were wearing lifejackets, we had time,” passenger Koo Bon-hee later told the Associated Press. "If people had jumped into the water... they could have been rescued. But we were told not to go out."

At 9:37 AM, around the time the helicopters appeared, Captain Lee and ten of the Sewol’s crew members boarded the only two lifeboats used to escape (out of the ship’s 44), making them among the first of 179 survivors to leave. (An additional 297, most of them students, are either deceased or still officially missing.) Lee now claims to have broadcast an evacuation message before departing, though passengers who had stayed on the ship longer than he did dispute this claim.

By 10:23, the ship had completely overturned, and less than an hour later all but the tip of the bow had been submerged. By 1 PM, the ship had completely disappeared from sight. Rescue efforts have been ongoing, involving oxygen injections into the ship, 28 aircrafts, 34 boats, and over 600 divers, both military and volunteer—but there have been no new survivors found since.


The Sewol at the moment of capsizing. Photo by the Korean Coast Guard via Wikicommons

The international deluge of articles seeking to understand Sewol began on day one. Everybody wants to know why Captain Lee left the helm to an inexperienced third mate, of course, and why that third mate made such a sharp and consequential turn. But in light of the transcript releases, Koreans and international onlookers seem equally intent on investigating the evacuation response. Why did the crew continue to insist that passengers stay in place even as the ship took on water and tilted more than 45 degrees portside? Why did it take harbor officials half an hour to challenge the captain’s judgment, and only noncommittally so? Why did most of the passengers stay in their rooms as ordered, well past the point of hope?

For answers, many have already turned an eye to South Korean cultural norms. In an article for the South China Morning Post published Thursday, Seoul-based journalist Andrew Salmon probed whether the event was “a symptom of a hierarchical culture in which young people are taught to obey authority figures without question,” quoting his peer Michael Breen’s assertion in the Chosun Ilbo that "Korean teenagers are very accustomed to being told what to do and what to think.” Emily Rauhala that same day speculated for Time that “South Korean students are accustomed to strict discipline, which may have made them more likely to follow the crew’s order.” And on Friday afternoon, during a segment called The Lead, CNN journalist Kyung Lah replied to host Jake Tapper’s question about whether cultural values factored in the death toll:

Certainly... What this culture prizes in its children, in its students, is obedience. And so when they were told to stay put by an adult, of course they would stay put. That is really what’s infuriating a lot of the parents here. They feel that the adults should know better, that had their children been told to run to the deck, that perhaps they could have jumped into the water, that they could have survived... So it is certainly heartbreaking for them, because these are the very parents who had instilled [in them] that sense of obedience, and listening to their elders.”

The particular facet of South Korean culture these journalists fixate upon derives from the Chinese system of moral philosophy known in the west as Confucianism, specifically the neo-Confucian strain innovated by Zhu Xi in the 13th century. Korea adopted a form of neo-Confucianism as its state ideology until the end of the Joseon dynasty, in 1910, and its influence remains evident in much of Korean society. As the Economist’s South Korea correspondent Daniel Tudor notes in his recent book Korea: The Impossible Country, “Perhaps [Confucianism’s] most powerful effect on Korean culture is to be found in the sense of hierarchy,” which links authority to age and status.

In truth, however, the catch-all of “South Korean culture,” or even neo-Confucian obedience in particular, fails to account for what happened on Wednesday. The problem with such arguments is their suggestion not only that the Sewol crew and harbor officials were blinded from moral responsibility by cultural programming, but also that the hundreds of students and others left on the ship were socially hardwired automatons who, though cognizant of their ability to escape, felt too inhibited by a respect for their elders to move. This is excessively reductive, for one, but falls apart altogether when you consider that many of the people who stayed onboard were in fact elders of the crew. Furthermore, if Confucian doctrine were the be-all and end-all under these circumstances, then what of li—a fundamental Confucian precept that encourages those beneath an authority to disregard orders if they seem irrational or unjust?

Consider instead the disorienting chaos of a true emergency situation like the Sewol’s. Passengers stayed in place not because they were told to do so, but because within moments of the ship’s initial lurch, it was already at an angle sharp enough to inhibit movement. Though the decision to jump the some 40 feet into the frigid Yellow Sea may seem preferable now, BBC travel correspondent Richard Westcott reminds that “the basic assumption [in such situations] is always that the ship is the best lifeboat. That it’s safer to stay on board than brave the water.” Likewise, while Breen conjectured that it was the “naughty ones who disobeyed” that made it out of the Sewol alive, survivor testimonies largely contradict this assumption. Lim Hyung Min, one of the 300 high school students on the ship, stayed in place as advised, happening to be in one of the rooms most accessible to rescuers once they arrived. Shin Young Ja, a 71-year-old, noted that the only reason she had made it out was because she had been sitting away from her friends to watch a soap opera. The television was next to a window, which rescuers later shattered to extract her.

The real problem, at all levels, seems to be protocol—or rather, the absence of one. Kim Su Bin, a classmate of Lim’s at Danwon High School in Ansan, pointed out that passengers did not receive any safety instruction before or during the trip, and that life jackets were available on the fourth floor but not on the third. A communication’s officer for the Sewol has admitted to the crew’s lack of evacuation training, or the enforcement thereof. And the indecision written all over the transcripts between harbor officials and the Sewol crew reveals an apparent dearth of actionable protocol for either side in the event of such a calamity.

“The main point is not culture,” said Jaehwan Cho, a Seoul-based journalist covering the events on his Twitter, in an interview on Sunday. “The main point is government structure... We need to turn our eyes to the government situation, government atmosphere. If we can revise those things, I don’t think this kind of disaster will happen again.”

Cho was referring not only to the lack of clearly defined and strictly enforced maritime protocol, but furthermore the government’s mishandling of the crisis since. Just hours after the incident, a five-year-old girl whose parents and brother were still on the ship was taken from the hospital for a tone-deaf and widely ridiculed photo op with president Park Geun-hye. It took five whole days for the town of Jindo, which has housed many of the families of the missing and deceased since Wednesday, to be declared a special disaster zone. Perhaps most tragically, the Danwon vice principal hanged himself on Friday from a tree near the family encampment, a guilt-stricken note in his pocket about how the ferry field trip had been his idea. He had not been under any psychological supervision despite the trauma of escaping the shipwreck, and having spent much of the ensuing two days facing the parents of his lost students.

Sick of the lack of information from authorities, some hundred grieving parents began a 260-mile march to the presidential Blue House in Seoul at 2 AM on Sunday. Though coldly intercepted by police after daybreak, the parents pressed against the blockade and shouted, “The government is the killer.” Captain Lee and much of his crew are currently being prosecuted, president Park having called their negligence “akin to mass murder”—but now the public is united with the parents in their demand for action. Thousands have hit the streets in Seoul and other major cities, bearing signs calling for reform and resignation. South Koreans know they have been wronged, and they are acting upon it.

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