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SOUTH KOREA: Ferry Sinks National Morale

SOUTH KOREA: Ferry Sinks National Morale

July 16, 2014

On April 16 of this year, a ferry sank and hundreds of lives were lost. Many students who died were from a single school. Dozens of passengers are still missing. This incident has signalled the public that they need to be more aware of the concept of 'safety'. Analysis from experts and the media has contended that structural flaws caused the ferry to sink. According to them three reasons were operative in the sinking. First, the ferry was carrying overweight containers that were not properly fixed to the deck. Second, there was illegal renovation of the ferry, plus the failure of supervising authorities to inspect the ship adequately. Third, the control centre was negligent in monitoring ship movements in the adjacent seas. And, in addition, here were failures by the marine police, a government institution, during the course of rescue activities.

One factor that has received less attention in this tragic incident is the chronic disease it has spawned, something unaddressed by society. This affliction is none other than the consummate demoralisation of the people as a whole, which stems from the failure of the state to protect the lives of its citizens. The public had assumed that the state provides protection for citizens and, in return, citizens pay taxes so vital institutions may function to ensure their safety. The expectation and promise was that the state distributes wealth equally, taking affirmative action to protect the marginalized. However, after the ferry incident, these assumptions and expectations have taken a hit; many now doubts the state's role.

The ferry captain was in a position to see the position of the ferry as it sank. He repeatedly ordered passengers to remain inside the vessel until rescue teams arrived. But, it was the captain who, with a few other crew members, abandoned the ship first. He did not take the steps needed to rescue the passengers. And, his actions provoked outrage on the part of family members. The level of outrage deepened when the authorities, especially the marine police, failed to take appropriate steps to rescue passengers as the ferry was sinking. And, the main broadcasting media outlets and journalists broadcast false information. In addition, they fabricated rescue activities. Due consideration was not given to the voices of family members. These actions escalated and accelerated the outrage of the people. Not only were families and relatives of the victims affected, the society as a whole suffered as it witnessed the state in action.

This tragedy requires more analysis to better understand the perspective of social demoralisation. In fact, the ferry incident is not an isolated one, if we consider the modern history of Korea. When the North Korean army invaded the South on 25 June 1950, President Lee, the first President of the Republic of Korea, with full knowledge of the circumstances, repeatedly broadcast this message to the people of Seoul. He said that the South Korean army was fighting back the North Korean army. The people of Seoul had nothing to worry about. But, in fact, President Lee was the first one to abandon Seoul. He settled down in the relative safety of Daejeon at the break of dawn on 27 June. The Minister of National Defence was the second to escape that afternoon, followed by the Army Chief of Staff the following dawn.

Until that day, the broadcasting continued. Soon after the Army Chief abandoned Seoul, an order was given to blow up the bridges over the Han River, which flows from east to west across the country. It was reported that 500 innocent civilians who were crossing the bridges at that time were killed, not by the North Korean army, but by their own military.

This historical fact was not properly reported and considered due to the Korean War, which wrought hundreds of thousands of human casualties and took three years to reach an armistice. As a result, the head of state, together with those responsible for relinquishing their duties, were not only freed from responsibility, but President Lee continued to rule the country for the following 12 years. The failure to hold them responsible has been explained away with the excuse that it was a transitional period (from the mindset of monarchy to that of a republic), with a high level of prevailing illiteracy, and total control of the media. Such excuses no longer explain the contemporary situation. But the inner demoralisation repeats itself as a national memory of being hurt, of being betrayed by ones own government again.

Lessons from past experiences should be taught to current and future generations to prevent similar incidents from re-occurring. The truth behind the ferry incident is the initial step, and families of the victims have the right to know the truth. Symbolic actions are mere political gesture. They include the resignation of the Prime Minister – who, incidentally, was re-hired in a couple of months – and the abolition of the marine police. The actions were taken only to avoid and mitigate the fallout in the intense period of criticism following the sinking.

Three months after the tragedy various stakeholders have agreed to introduce a special law that will authorise an inquiry into the truth of the ferry sinking. No agreement has yet been reached in terms of the contents of the bill. According to the ruling majority party, the draft bill shall not involve any vesting of investigatory or prosecutorial power. The opposition feels only investigatory power should be allowed. Civil society and the families of the ferry victims are demanding both. Once again, the decision makers are taking refuge in the labyrinths of the political process.

If the system of representative democracy had been functioning well then proper measures would already have been taken, regardless of party allegiance. As demonstrated by this tragedy, and from what we know is going on in South Korea, it appears that representative democracy is heading for another failure. The citizens are on notice that they are only needed as an electorate during an election period.

In the long run, a change needs to be made to amend and create a more responsible representative regime. This is the time for the public to open the gates to trigger such changes. The ferry incident is a tragedy in the extreme, but the South Korean society now has another chance to correct some of its problems and get it right.

In line with the demands of the families of the ferry victims and civil society, the Asian Human Rights Commission adds its voice. All phases of human history are littered with opposition figures reluctant to accept change in order to secure their power in politics. But history teaches that change is possible with the majority of people. Justice is not something given but something achieved by people with heightened consciousness.

Indeed, society is deeply demoralised by those running government institutions. But, it is the ordinary people, acting with humanity, who can reclaim hope and begin curing society. Otherwise, only a national memory of betrayal will be repeated.

ENDS

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