The Korean ferry disaster

Anyone living in South Korea has most likely been triggered by the wall-to-wall coverage of the ferry sinking. It’s being called a national tragedy. Quick update for cave-dwellers: the Sewol was making a routine trip from Incheon in the north of the Korean republic to the traditional resort island of Jeju. It strayed too close to shore, made a sharp turn and hit something, then slid quickly – but not too quickly – into the water, where as of today it remains wholly submerged, while 500 divers retrieve bodies from inside.

Which brings me to the collective trauma currently being inflicted on the South Koreans as they watch the ferry rescue operation unfold. Seoul is quiet: last weekend was warm and sunny, yet sidewalks were still navigable and there were seats in the cafes. It’s considered poor form to laugh too loudly, and no one feels like it anyway.

Unfortunately, the collective grief is shot through with scapegoating. The captain of the ferry left the boat early, as did many of the crew. Although five minutes into the disaster they were told to prepare the passengers for evacuation, the order didn’t get broadcast for another half hour, by which point the boat began seriously listing. It’s easy to look at the crew as a bunch of cowards, intent on saving their own skins rather than helping the passengers. Indeed, the inexplicable order for people to stay below deck in their cabins seems like outright murder, a point that President Park has been quick to capitalize on.

These facts, combined with the heartrending texts as the teens discovered too late they couldn’t leave, have led to some predictable responses. Suicide by a survivor; attacking the rescuers; attacking the governor of Gyeonggi province for making the questionable decision to write some poetry about how difficult the rescue operation is. What drives these responses is how personalized they are: the problem lies with individuals. For grieving parents, this is understandable; for politicians, it’s calculated.

The more level-headed media outlets, international and local, have pointed out major flaws with the ‘evil sailors’ argument.

1) The uncertainty of the crew’s actions. The transcript of the unnamed crew member trying to get instructions from the maritime control station is infuriating – possibly moreso because I’ve had so many conversations like this in Korea, albeit with far less at stake:

Controller: “Please go out and let the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing.”

Crew member: “If this ferry evacuates passengers, will you be able to rescue them?”

Controller: “At least make them wear life rings and make them escape.”

Crew member: “If this ferry evacuates passengers, will they be rescued right away?”

Controller: “Don’t let them go bare. At least make them wear life rings and make them escape… We don’t know the situation very well. The captain should make the final decision and decide whether you’re going to evacuate passengers or not.”

Crew member: “I’m not talking about that. I asked, if they evacuate now, can they be rescued right away?”

The crew member tries to get a straight answer on whether it’s safe to evacuate, and the controller either doesn’t know or won’t tell him/her. The captain had similar concerns: he claims not to have ordered an evacuation because he thought the teenagers would get swept out to sea and die of hypothermia. Even if this seems to present a greater chance of survival than staying below deck, it’s the kind of ‘best guess’ thinking of the untrained – and given he wasn’t on the deck at the time of the disaster, and a 26 year old with 6 months’ training making only her second navigation through those waters was – training was clearly lacking. The first ‘bang’ signalled the ship’s listing and may have been cargo shifting in the hold, since the hull appears undamaged. Some couldn’t walk because they were injured by shifting cargo, making the evacuation order irrelevant.

Yet the crew were certified safe, and this points to 2), the much-larger story that President Park is keen to bury with accusations of murder: there are systemic failures at every level of the disaster response and shipping company policy.

a) The ship was only allowed to operate because the Korean government relaxed safety regulations on the import and retooling of old ships in 2009
b) the cargo was not loaded or secured properly, and safety inspections weren’t done
c) the ship may have been travelling too quickly to make up for lost time – spend any time in a Seoul bus or taxi and you’ll know this is standard procedure
d) the ship may have had its stabilizing ballast load emptied to go faster

The crew members were irresponsible, maybe criminally, but so were the ship owners and government regulators. And the amateurish disaster response, which featured different ministries refusing to share information with one another, shows that however criminal the crew were, the bureaucrats were just as unfocused.

The story will develop for a long time to come; the laughter of Seoul’s happy groups of students will be muted as well. (That sounds terribly cliched but it’s true: you can’t walk in a campus, or down a street in a trendy neighbourhood without hearing groups of laughing young adults, often slapping each other.) Whatever the details to follow, the only clear feature of this tragedy so far is that it was a collective failure, not a personal one, sparked by shoddy regulations and genuine instant decision-making. Let’s not rush to judge.

Relative safety

I’ve saved the speculation till last, because it’s subjective and could be entirely irrelevant. But since other commentators haven’t shirked from blaming greed, cowardice or human nature, I’m going to add in my observations of Korean safety rules. First, I’ve seen heavy moving equipment balanced on old wooden beams, I’ve dodged cars and scooters driving on sidewalks, I’ve had to pressure my landlord to buy a cheap smoke alarm, which apparently is not mandatory – safety standards in Korea are not what I’m used to in the west.

Second, there’s the ‘rigid rules, flexible implementation’ model of laws and regulations. Everybody knows that you can argue your way out of a speeding ticket or immigration violation. Bureaucrats often don’t know the rules they’re supposed to enforce. Again, this is something I never realized before I came to Korea. Where I come from, bureaucrats delight in the immovable nature of rules, presumably for the power they provide. Here, things are flexible. That’s not a bad thing: it’s part of the reason Korea can develop and change so rapidly. I’ve seen 10 restaurants open in my small neighbourhood in the last six months, and I highly doubt each went through a planning and environmental assessment process. If you want to get things done quickly, it helps to be flexible. But then you can get things like poorly-secured cargo.

My deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the dead.

2 thoughts on “The Korean ferry disaster

  1. Funny this entire fiasco sounds a lot like what happened when the Malaysian airliner disappeared two months ago, systemic unpreparedness and a lack of transparency.

  2. So true. That’s a point of contention, as the editorial above states: “Foreign media are providing detailed coverage of an uninterrupted ferry sinking, the kind of thing that happens in third-world countries. This coverage is showing the whole world just how backward South Korea’s disaster response system and crisis management capacity are.”

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