The Rise Of Sewol: A New Time For South Korea?


By March 28th or 29th, the Motor Vessel (MV) Sewol is expected to reach the nearest land. On March 23rd, the ferry was salvaged from the depths of the sea. On April 16th, 2014, it sunk with 476 passengers on board. The majority of the passengers – 325 people – were students from Danwon High School. 304 people drowned, of whom 246 were high school students. Three years have passed, but nine bodies are still missing.

The ship departed from Incheon on April 15th, 2014 and was meant to reach Jeju, a popular vacation destination and where the students were going for a school trip. According to the Republic of Korea Coast Guard, the next day the ferry made an “unreasonably sudden turn” between 8:48 and 8:49 AM, which caused it to overturn. The turn had shifted the cargo until the crew could not manage the tilting ferry. The tilt was exacerbated by the fact that the ship was overloaded and the cargo was improperly secured. MV Sewol was transporting 3,608 tons of cargo, which was three times as much as the 987 ton limit of the ship. Worse still, the ferry was carrying less than a third of the recommended ballast water, which would have made the ship less likely to capsize.

By 8:52 AM, CNN’s reports state that the intercom was ordering the passengers to not move: “Do not move. Just stay where you are. It’s dangerous if you move, so just stay where you are.” The first distress call at 8:52 AM was actually made by one of the Danwon High School students. The ferry’s crew made its own distress call only at 8:55 AM. After 40 minutes, when the boat had significantly tilted, is when the captain gave orders to abandon the ship by which time it was too late. MV Sewol took only 2.5 hours to sink.

The event roused a national anger against negligence in regulations and poor rescue operation. It illustrated that there were no adequate preventive or corrective measures against such disasters. The anger was further fueled by the insensitivity of people related to the government, mainly an inappropriate Facebook post from the son of a prominent politician. Moreover, misleading and incorrect information confused the public. A major news agency in Korea, Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), initially reported that all the passengers had been rescued, reassuring texts were sent to the parents from educational department officer, and news agencies repeatedly reported an incorrect number of fatalities. A senior editor of the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), a prominent Korean news agency influenced by the government, commented that the casualties were “not many, compared with the number of people killed in traffic accidents each year.” The United States rescue helicopter and Japan’s Coast Guard offered their assistance, which was rejected by the South Korean navy.

The problem behind the incident, therefore, can be divided into three main categories: (1) negligence in regulations, (2) inappropriate handling of the situation as the boat sank, and (3) poor handling of the aftermath.

Firstly, various preventive measures could have been taken before the ship left for Jeju. As aforementioned, the ship was carrying a significantly greater amount of cargo than recommended. Time Magazine also noted that the cargo was not even properly secured, nor were ballast tanks properly filled. The Korean Register of Shipping has commented that Sewol was “top heavy and less stable” after modifications were made to the boat. According to Kukmin Ilbo, Captain Shin, the regular captain of Sewol, had informed the company about such instabilities of the boat and about steering gear malfunctioning. Both requests were ignored by the ship’s company, and the captain was instead threatened with being fired. Moreover, the company only invested $2 (US) on crew safety training, which was spent on buying certificates. Essentially, a ship unfit for sailing had sailed with a crew that was unfit for duty.

Secondly, actions taken during the sinking were pitiable. Captain Lee had instructed the passengers to not move, but he was one of the first ones to be rescued. Some crew members were drinking during the sinking. In terms of rescue operations, Choisunilbo states the Korean Coast Guard’s rescue attempts were “half-hearted at best.” No attempts were made to enter the ferry. In fact, no attempts were made to enter “the wheelhouse and (make) an announcement over the ship’s public address system to evacuate and gather on deck if possible,” which is standard procedure, according to Kim Chan-oh from Seoul National University of Science and Technology. Half of the survivors were rescued by fishing and commercial boats, and foreign help was rejected. In terms of media, conflicting, incorrect and misleading information was propagated. It gave false hope and reassurances to the parents and public that there could be air pockets in the ferry in which people could still be alive, even after the ferry had sunk completely. In short, the immediate response inside and outside of the ferry should be condemned.

Thirdly, the aftermath of the incident was poorly handled. In particular, the government placed emphasis in quenching the opposition. The public was furious as to how the ship had ignored regulations, how the rescue operations were poor, and how ex-President Park could not be located for the first seven hours after the Sewol started sinking. In response, ex-President Park tried to “control the protest in the name of ferry accident” and referred to the event as “just a ferry accident” according to a 2016 report by the National Intelligence Service. Such methods included putting pressure on the media, aborting funding for vocal groups against the incident, and black-listing entertainment stars who appeared sympathetic about how the events unfolded. The government did not listen to Koreans, instead they were suppressed.

The complexity of the problem at hand demands that the solution is equally intricate. It requires changes both in regulations but also in mentality.

In terms of regulations, there need to be standards that are more stringent and upheld. Safety regulation is one aspect where improvements could be made. If the safety regulations were noted and acted upon, these events can be prevented. It is already known that the boat was unstable, but the necessary precautions were not taken. The government should enforce laws, not only by generating reports, but also by following through and implement the results from that knowledge. This signifies putting a greater pressure on companies to make the necessary changes. For instance, more emphasis should have been placed on ensuring that the recommended amount of cargo was securely loaded, as well as the correct amount of water ballast, and the boat was fixed of its instabilities. Moreover, the personnel should be better trained. Again, this will be executed by individual companies, but should be enforced by the government. Formal reports of the training, in regards to the scope, duration, and classifications, should be submitted. Then, they could be followed by unexpected inspections of different companies.

In terms of altering the mentality, the changes would take longer. Korean society has a very hierarchical mindset. It believes that what the authority says should be followed. Consequently, the students followed the instructions of the Sewol captain without question. Such mentality is deeply engraved in the general Korean culture: when following instructions from teachers in school, from seniors in companies, or from government officials. At the same time, there is an underlying agreement that opposition should not be voiced against someone more senior. Again, this frequently occurs at all levels. Change can only be brought if people are encouraged to express their thoughts, and the first steps need to be taken by the government. The government can accomplish this by either admitting its shortcomings or seeking help from others. From recent South Korean scandals regarding ex-President Park, the nation has seen how people in power refuse to admit to their actions and to apologize for their wrong-doings, which works to increase the public distrust of the government. By admitting and apologizing, the government can create a more inclusive environment. Furthermore, it can also ask and listen to people’s voices from all levels. This can include accepting students to have some work experience in the civil service and treating them equally. Essentially, by initiating change from the highest levels, especially from South Korean representatives, it can have a trickle-down effect and encourage the entire country to adopt a different mentality.

Sewol has risen, which symbolizes how corruption has risen for the world to see. It was the beginning of the end for ex-President Park, the first female president and the first South Korean president to be impeached. The question now is: can South Korea move on from the corrupted sewol (Korean for time) and into a new era?

Min Ji Kim

Undergraduate student studying Biochemistry at University of Oxford

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