Tuesday, April 22, 2014

the long and suspended mourning

For many, if not most, in South Korea, it's a period of mourning. With 108 confirmed dead in the Sewol ferry tragedy as of this writing, and with 194 still missing, this catastrophe has the potential to surpass the body count of the 1993 ferry disaster that claimed over 290 South Korean lives. But hope in finding survivors, though dwindling, hasn't been extinguished yet, and the parents of the missing schoolchildren find themselves caught in a strange and terrible limbo, not ready to mourn until they know more, but already fearing the worst. For this latter group of people, poised at the precipice of grief, any mourning has been suspended until further information comes in.

South Korea has also plunged deeply into a period of loud self-examination and recrimination. Many families blame the government of President Park Geun-hye for having provided, at best, an incompetent response to the crisis. Others reply that blame should primarily rest on the ferry captain and his crew, all of whom had received the order, not five minutes after sending out a distress call, to make ready to abandon ship. This order, which came from the Jeju Island VTS (Vessel Traffic Services), was promptly ignored. The ferry's captain, Lee Jun-seok, has lawyered up and now claims, implausibly, that he did give the order to abandon ship. Unsurprisingly, no one believes him. Commentators both Korean and non-Korean wonder aloud about how much of this tragedy was the result of flaws in Korean culture—the rush-rush nature of Korean society, so impatient to succeed that safety measures are bypassed, or the hierarchical sensibility that would lead students and other passengers to obey nonsensical orders and complacently await their doom.

About the only thing that is clear is that the Sewol's captain and crew were criminally negligent in their handling of the crisis. Report after report from the survivors confirms that the passengers had been told to stay where they were "because it was safer." The result of this misguided order may very well be over 300 deaths. Also of note, as was discovered within the first 24 hours of the crisis, is that only one of the lifeboats had been used. Had all the lifeboats been deployed, there would have been the capacity to save up to a thousand people. The newest counts put the number of passengers and crew at 476 (up from 459), and there's a chance that there are several unaccounted-for passengers. There were more than enough lifeboats to go around, although it's doubtful the crew had been trained in how to deploy them.

Theories as to why the ship listed and sank abound. The most prominent one is the turn-and-tilt theory: for mysterious reasons, the Sewol veered sharply, dislodging cargo and unbalancing the ship. The immediate, obvious implication is that the cargo must have been improperly secured—yet more evidence of inattention to safety. Once the ship has been righted and all the bodies have been claimed, we will, perhaps, learn more.

Rescue efforts continue to be hampered by rough seas, poor visibility, and hunks of cargo that obstruct the passage of divers inside the ship. Sadly, as the rescuers scour more and more of the Sewol's interior volume, bodies continue to be found, and the death toll will, inevitably, continue to rise. At this point, finding even one living soul would seem like a miracle, although that one person's life would be of small comfort to the stricken families whose children have been confirmed lost.

For the moment, at least, I prefer to stay away from sweeping indictments of Korean culture. There are enough culture-independent factors here to occupy my mind; this accident was the result of a constellation of causes, ranging from human carelessness to institutional malfeasance. None of these errors is unique to Korean culture. At the same time, this whole crisis has been a stomach-turning display of human cowardice and venality, and I'm not just talking about the captain and his crew: I'm also referring to the despicable scum that had been sending fake text messages to stricken parents, to the serial impostor who managed to get herself on TV spouting nonsense about the rescue operation, and to the politicians who have adopted various poses in an attempt to present themselves in a better light instead of shutting up and doing what's helpful. Again, none of this is unique to Korean culture, but the disaster happened here; the sundered families are here; the body count is ticking upward here.


1 comment:

John said...

Well said.

I can't begin to imagine the grief, suspended or otherwise, these families are experiencing. I'm not really able to grasp why folks would blame the Park government for the ineptness of local politicians. All my wrath is reserved for the captain and crew.

The wife and I talked about this the other night. I said if I'm on a ship that's listing 45 degrees, I'm getting the hell out of my cabin. Jee said that high school kids would be very unlikely to defy the authority of the crew in this regard. Sad, sad, sad...