Dear young students under the sea, please forgive us for not being able to rescue you from the ill-fated ferry Sewol. As you have found out by now, we adults are so incredibly incompetent and irresponsible that you cannot count on us in times of emergency. When the disaster happened, we were hopelessly sloppy in the rescue mission, press releases and broadcasting. And we were flustered by the wrong information about the passengers.
To your disappointment, we were incredibly slow to act as well, even though we were notoriously quick-tempered. For example, we wasted the crucial first two hours when the ferry was still afloat and the first day when the sea was relatively calm and the current was rather placid. We lost the golden opportunity to rescue you from the sinking ship. Instead of launching a prompt, large-scale rescue operation, we just moved around this way and that in confusion, not knowing what to do. As a result, not a single passenger was rescued after the second day. Our incompetence and tardiness broke the hearts of your parents and siblings, who were desperately waiting for your safe return.
Dear young students under the sea, we were also appalled to learn that the captain and his crew abandoned the ship and fled without any attempt to rescue you. How he could be so irresponsible and cowardly is beyond us, but surely this reflects a chronic problem of our society. When the Korean War broke out, for example, our political leader hastily escaped to a local city, destroying the Han River Bridge, so no one else could escape from Seoul. It was good to see President Park rush to the accident site and meet with the victims’ angry parents to comfort them, which obviously was not an easy thing to do.
Dear children trapped in the sunken ship, please accept our heartfelt apologies for the tragic accident. We should not have let the ferry leave port and begin the perilous voyage in the first place. Reportedly, the departure was delayed for a few hours due to foggy weather. Then, before the departure, we should have checked whether emergency gear such as life vests, lifeboats and emergency sliding devices properly worked. But we were completely negligent. A ferry full of young students should be treated like a treasure ship to be handled with extra care. Instead, we treated you as if you were cheap cargo on board at a group discount fare. Our indifference culminated in assigning a 69-year-old substitute captain to your ferry.
Dear young students under the dark sea, we are so ashamed to confess that we were not prepared for such a disaster at all. When Japan was hit by the tsunami a few years ago, our newspaper columnists derided the Japanese people by writing, “The Japanese are people who follow the manual faithfully. Therefore, when an accident not described in the manual happens, they are at a loss.” Now we come to realize that we do not even have a manual to follow, or ignore the manual if there actually is one. Besides, the Japanese disaster was a natural one, but ours was caused by human error.
Dear young students under the cold sea, we are also ashamed of ourselves, because we do not possess the proper sense of safety. Traditionally, we think that being cautious about safety is not manly. In order not to look like sissies, therefore, we have always deliberately ignored safety measures. Consequently, we let you go down under the deep, dark sea without a chance to be rescued.
Now we belatedly realize that the Ministry of Security and Public Administration should change its name to the Ministry of Safety and Public Administration, so it can concentrate on the safety of the people, rather than on national security. The Ministry of Education should also abolish totally unnecessary student field trips once and for all, so this kind of tragic accident won’t happen again in the future.
Dear children, please understand that our Coast Guards and divers did their best to rescue you despite high tides and roaring waves. Nevertheless, it was a shame that South Korea, a country famous for its shipbuilding and advanced technology, was totally incompetent when faced with the disaster. We hope that the sunken ferry is not a microcosm of our society. We now realize that it is not K-pop or IT that makes Korea an advanced country. We should overhaul the system and effectuate the Sewol-ho law immediately, so no similar disaster happens in the future and no sea captain abandons his ship before rescuing all his passengers.
Dear young students under the sea, we adults are grief-stricken and will suffer an unmitigated sense of guilt for the rest of our lives. You may not be with us anymore, but surely you will live in our hearts in the years to come.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. ― Ed.