Is the Sewol Tragedy a ‘Korean Self Portrait’? by Tom Coyner

Sometimes it’s amazing how much we foreigners in Korea live in a bubble. We see the demonstrations and the yellow ribbons. We witness the media mourning and criticizing. And yet, often we foreigners still don’t get what is really going on here – or, at least, we miss an important aspect of a current event.

A case in point is the furor created by an immigrant to Chicago, Jo Kwang-dong, a newspaper publisher and television executive in the overseas Korean community.

He has written a remarkable essay, “Sewol is Korea’s Self Portrait,” that has spread like wildfire in the Korean blogosphere. You can see a large listing of references attesting to the hornet’s nest that Jo has stirred up. Several foreign commentators have made analyses similar to Jo’s opening observation, that it is not entirely fair to limit the accident’s responsibility to those personnel directly and indirectly accountable.

But Jo goes painfully further than foreign observers dare – or are able – by blaming the very foundations of contemporary Korea. Jo points out that today’s society is very competitive, where many people worry about early forced retirement. “Only the diminishing number of people who have adequate money and political connections are properly treated by society,” he writes.

“Increasingly, students browbeat their friends if the others are viewed as being of inferior status, sometimes even resorting to violence. The education system has deteriorated to the point that teachers can no longer scold students. Even parents, if lacking in the expected levels of material wealth, are treated with disrespect by their own children. “It has become difficult to live a life with dignity while retaining one’s integrity. Contrary opinions to the social norm only invite verbal mob violence aimed at destroying minority opinion holders’ integrity. In this insane environment, there is no place for balance and reasonableness.”

Given the national mentality and value system, Jo wonders how difficult it must be to nurture the beautiful character found in self-sacrifice. “Rather, the current trend within the education system is to focus on churning out robots capable of passing examinations. In other words, the captain and crew are products of a mass production process. Yes, people point to the overloading of the ferry as a cause of the tragedy, but that is just one factor among many. In other words, how unique is the Sewol from the rest of society?”

In spite of the wide array of criticism and revelations of culprits in a society that produces a Sewol, he notes, negligence and complacency can be found in layers. “Just as long as everything looks okay on the surface, another Sewol-like time bomb lays ticking.

” Meanwhile, Jo notes with disgust how citizens quarrel over how President Park appeared wearing a blue suit when she met President Obama, who wore an appropriate black suit. Journalists foment public emotion by chastising a minister for eating a cup of noodles at the disaster site, with the Blue House rebutting the criticism by noting the minister didn’t add an egg. All of this appeared in headlines on newspaper websites. This, too, in Jo’s opinion, is a portrait of Korea’s standards.

That is to say, reason and rationality have been replaced by excessive emotions and mob-like obstinacy. Jo laments calls for the acting prime minister to resign, saying resignation at such a moment would be pathetic and irresponsible. Other people call for the president to take responsibility and resign.

“Korea has become a society that politically exploits tragedy. Each incident is exaggerated, with culprits irresponsibly ostracized to the point that society looses its normal judgment.” And Jo thinks bereaved family members are no exception. “They cried out loud at those rescuers who were risking their lives in rough water, ‘How come you don’t deliver quick results?’ Certainly one can empathize with the families’ heartbreak, but their attitude also reflects this country’s hurried mentality.” From his safe perch in Chicago, Jo states what others in Korea dare not say.

“The Koreans need to change the national mentality if they are to find a way to wipe away their tears,” Jo writes. “The first step in making this change is by self-reflection, while stopping the finger pointing. Second, Koreans need to lower their angry voices. Finally, Koreans need to break away from the ‘ppali-ppali’ mentality that runs amok in society. “Before criticizing the incompetent for their slow rescue and stoning the captain and crew, all of us should ask ourselves whether we are free from all of these influences and factors … We should ask ourselves if we sufficiently have the devotion and patriotism to risk our lives for our nation’s safety.”

Many people are now calling for safety training, making government systems more efficient, while abolishing government officials’ irrationality. But, Jo argues all of that won’t make a dent in the overall problem. Essential change can only come from a transformation of the population’s mentality. Unless a reform movement takes place at both the top and bottom of society, along with a major government overhaul, revolutionary change will not happen. In the end, the people will be left on another ship waiting to sink.

“Unless the Koreans reform themselves down to their very core, there will be no washing away of the absurdity within Korean thinking. Today’s tears of mourning will end up being nothing more than an emotional catharsis within a culture that values form over substance.” Time is the cure for sorrow and pain. But, Jo concludes, by refusing to learn from the past, time will also prove to be a poison that eventually delivers a new sorrow.

by Tom Coyner.  IPG Legal Senior Adviser.

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