Korea has been crying for itself since the Sewol cruise ship sank on April 16. The ship was carrying 476 people, most of them high school students on a school trip, sank en route to Jeju from Incheon. A staggering 264 people died, and as of press time, another 38 are missing, but most certainly dead. Cargo weight far exceeding capacity made the ship hard to maneuver, causing it to capsize during or after a turn.
The scope of the tragedy alone was enough to send the nation into shock, but it was magnified many times over by the incompetence of captain and crew, who failed to evacuate the students and then abandoned the sinking ship. As shock turned to anger, the government came under fire for not responding quickly enough and President Park Geun-hye for not offering strong leadership. The prime minister, the second most powerful figure in the Korean government, resigned as criticism of the government spread in the media and on the Internet.
The media has gone into overdrive to analyze the details and offer explanations from a strongly ideological stance. Left-leaning media have turned the disaster into a referendum on the Park Geun-hye administration, whereas conservative media have responded by accusing the left of fomenting revolution.
Some foreign media have focused on how the hierarchical streak in Confucianism negatively affected the response to disaster. This argument is specious because it fails to address the essential question of the degree of Confucian influence on Korean culture today. It also ignores the simple fact that nations with no Confucian influence have not always dealt well with the troubling aftermath of disasters, either.
In commenting on Korea, most observers overlook one of the most important constants: the speed of change. Few nations change faster than Korea. The changes over the last 50 years have been so fast that generations have trouble communicating because they have so little in common. They look at the world from entirely different life histories.
One of the most important but often overlooked changes is higher levels of education. Koreans did not attend university in large numbers until the 1980s, which is 30 years later than most other advanced nations. Today, university attendance and high school graduation rates are among the highest in the world. The rapid rise in levels of education means that Koreans have become skeptical and want answers that fit reality.
Another important change is the view of the government. Colonial rule and dictatorship for most of the 20th century made generations of Koreans fearful of the government. The government had the power and the people did not. Except for a dedicated core of activists, most Koreans accepted government power readily and accommodated to changes in policy easily. Since democratization in the 1980s, subsequent generations have come to view themselves as owners of the government and demand competency that previous generations could never have demanded.
The Sewol tragedy joins a long list of large-scale accidents in Korea, including the collapses of Seongsu Bridge in 1994 and Sampung Department Store in 1995. Koreans know this history. They know that the immediate cause is carelessness and that the underlying cause is greed. The current national angst over the Sewol disaster is thus a call for change. It is a call for improved safety standards and competency in enforcing them.
At a broader and deeper level, it is a call for a better Korea, but that call cannot be answered until social trust is restored. Korea is already known as a low-trust society and the historical roots of the problem are deep, but an increasingly educated population wants to live in a country where institutions are trusted and competence is expected. Above all, they want to live in a country where human life comes before monetary greed.
Building social trust comes from reducing the gap between words and reality. The key is for leaders to find the gaps between words and reality and develop policies for narrowing the gaps. Old laws and practices that have roots in the years of dictatorship, for example, need to be scrapped, whereas new laws aimed at improving social trust need to be adopted. The process will take time and the result will never be perfect, but Koreans have high standards of what they want their nation to be and will continue to push for a better Korea.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser is an associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University. ― Ed.