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Politicians Will Pay for the Korean Ferry Disaster

South Korea's prime minister resigned Sunday amid fallout from the sinking of the Sewol ferry. He won't be the last political casualty.

by Mark Barthelemy
Apr 28 2014, 8:50pm

Image via Associated Press

Two weeks ago, things were looking peachy for the Saenuri, South Korea’s conservative political party. They were poised to dominate June's elections for provincial and metropolitan offices thanks in part to unprecedented support for President Park Geun-hye. After a year in office, she’d not only sustained her nationwide approval rating — a first in South Korea — but had actually seen it rise above 70 percent.

Then, on April 16, the Sewol ferry sank off Korea’s southernmost coast with more than 200 high school students trapped on board. Initially, public outrage was directed at the ship’s captain and crew for their alleged negligence. But in the hours and days that followed, the perception that the rescue effort was being completely bungled redirected that anger toward Park and her Saenuri colleagues. Amid mounting criticism, Park’s approval rating plummeted, dropping from 71 percent to 56.5 percent in less than a week.

After appearing on an official government open message board, a lengthy post critical of Park’s oversight of the disaster entitled “Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Be President" went viral, amassing more than 26,000 likes in its first 24 hours. The post was subsequently removed, however, after the government asked the author to remove it because traffic was overwhelming their servers.

Bitter words from one mother, who’d assumed her still-missing daughter to be dead, appeared in a widely distributed online article last week. "President Park said that there were 500 divers committed to the rescue effort, but I can't help but think that was a lie,” said the mother, identified only as Mrs. Kim. “I couldn’t give up on my child, and held on to the slightest of hope, only to face more lies. This is how the day went by, and then all the children died.

"I'm going to make arrangements to leave [the country]. I'm not a South Korean citizen. Because this nation throws away my child, I'm throwing away my nation.”

With midterm elections six weeks away, politicians suddenly find themselves entrenched in a game of high-stakes political football, with every word, action, or lack thereof open to withering scrutiny from an anguished and angry nation. As the party of the national president, and the majority party in the National Assembly parliament, Saenuri will bear the brunt of the fallout.

In the first major government shake-up following the sinking of the Sewol ferry, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won tendered his resignation on Sunday. "On behalf of the government, I apologize for many problems from the prevention of the accident to the early handling of the disaster," Chung said in a televised statement. Whether Chung’s willingness to take the fall will do much to stem persistent frustration toward Park’s government remains to be seen. In South Korea, the prime ministership is a presidentially appointed post akin to Chief of Staff in the US government. During the past 16 years, South Korea has had four Presidents — and 14 prime ministers.

The day after the ferry sunk, Chung headed to Jindo Island to meet with survivors and relatives. He was instead met with a protest by parents of still-missing children, who’d been incensed by what they deemed to be a mishandled rescue effort. As outraged parents jeered him, Chung was hit with a water bottle.

Incredibly, the person who threw it received no punishment whatsoever. Such is the country's current attitude toward the parents of the victims — and toward politicians.

That kind of treatment of public officials certainly doesn’t jibe with the popular tendency to peer at Korea through the lens of Confucianism, which assumes Koreans value an unquestioning obedience and deference to authority. But that ignores the role Korea’s modern, pre-democratic era had in shaping the national psyche. “More than any other country, in South Korea people can easily challenge the government,” Pyong Gap Min, professor of sociology at New York's Queens College, told VICE News. “The first popular election was in 1987, after the democratic movement challenged and overthrew the military dictatorship. [South Koreans] had suffered so much after 26 years of repressed freedoms. Now there is a remaining, strong distrust for politicians.”

South Korea's Culture Is Not to Blame For the Ferry Disaster. Read more here.

As the rescue efforts began to inspire frustrated criticism, a news program aired an interview that served to spark even greater outrage. In the interview, done the day after the sinking, scuba diver Hong Ga-hye claimed that the government had prevented divers from entering the water, that the Coast Guard had told divers to kill time because there was no hope of finding survivors, and that divers had confirmed survivors were in the ship. Hong was later discovered to have not been a scuba diver at all when she admitted to simply presenting rumors she’d heard as facts. But the damage had been done; the interview stoked both public outrage and a stream of media stories calling government rescue efforts into question.

A left-leaning newspaper ran a front-page picture of a relative on her knees in front of the president, with the headline: 'The nation where one has to beg the president to save a child.'

When Park traveled to Jindo for a difficult Q&A session with the distraught parents, she was screamed at and shouted down by those who claimed that the Coast Guard was not doing enough to rescue potential survivors, and that the families were not being given enough details about the rescue efforts. The next day, a left-leaning newspaper ran a front-page picture of a relative on her knees in front of Park, with the headline, The nation where one has to beg the president to save a child.

By Sunday, parents and relatives of the missing had all but acknowledged they would not see their children alive again, and continued to accuse officials of shifting blame and lying about the recovery efforts. In a dramatic scene, dozens of parents, relatives, and sympathizers threatened to march 250 miles north to the Blue House, the presidential residence in Seoul, to demand answers directly from Park. However, when they arrived at the bridge connecting Jindo Island to the Korean mainland, they were prevented from advancing by a police barricade. Images of the enraged parents failing to push past flooded Korean media.

The captain of the Sewol ferry abandons ship.

Prominent National Assembly member Chung Mong-joon was forced to apologize via social media and a press conference for a Facebook post written by his youngest son, in which the son referred to Korea as an “uncivilized” nation unable to deal with disasters rationally. Chung also happens to be a frontrunner in the election for Seoul mayor, a position commonly thought of as a stepping-stone to the national presidency.

Saenuri party leaders now have no choice but to play defense. In a Facebook post, a prominent national Saenuri party leader played the popular Pyongyang card against members of the Korean media: “At last, the North Korean instigators have opened their mouths. Left-wingers and left-leaning cyber terrorists are taking directives from the North to lead an open assault on the government.”

A Saenuri member of parliament also suggested that political instigators had infiltrated the parents group in Jindo, and that they were the ones who were loudly cursing the government, slapping around public officials, and writing “evil” words. Her claims gained some credence when news broke that the chief representative of the parents group — the man who'd taken the lead in the meeting with Park when she visited — was not a parent of a missing child. He was in fact running for a seat in a provincial legislature as a member of the liberal opposition party. He subsequently abandoned his candidacy.

Korean Thunderdome: A Four-Part Look at the Future of Korea. Read more here.

As criticism of the government continued to grow, Park directed pointed comments toward the Sewol captain and crew, who she said had engaged in “murderous” behavior. Developments in ongoing investigations and the emergence of forensic evidence may again focus national outrage on the captain and crew. But government officials believe it may be a couple of months before floating cranes can lift the Sewol back up to the surface — in other words, that evidence may not come to light until after the June elections.

Subdued sea currents have allowed divers to enter the sunken ferry, and in recent days they’ve brought dozens of bodies to shore for parents to view and identify. In coming weeks, Koreans will no doubt be inundated with emotional images of parents in anguish at their children’s funerals. And with just six weeks to go until people must choose new leaders, Koreans may very well bring their continuing anger and frustration with them to the ballot box.