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Humanitarian Emergencies

Is the Sewol Tragedy South Korea’s Katrina?

SEOUL, May 21 2014 (IPS) - In the weeks since the South Korean ferry Sewol sank—taking with it the lives of over 300 passengers, the vast majority of them high school students — the country continues to be wracked by a palpable mix of grief, guilt, and outrage.

The aftermath of the sinking has exposed a uniquely Korean sense of collective guilt and personalisation of disaster. In a comment that typified the national mood over the past weeks, one man told the Los Angeles Times, “I feel embarrassed as a Korean. We failed our children.”

Across all sectors of the country, and in ways difficult for international audiences to comprehend, people feel personally responsible for creating a society in which such a tragedy would be allowed to occur.

This combination of culpability and helplessness has turned to anger, and not just at the unforgivable actions of the captain and crew, who abandoned ship while leaving hundreds of students trapped in their cabins. In what could prove to be a major problem for President Park Geun-hye, it is the South Korean government that is now bearing the brunt of the public’s wrath.

“A Government Mafia”

The Park administration has come under heavy criticism from relatives of victims, who have protested in front of the Blue House and charged that the government did not act quickly or decisively enough in the immediate aftermath of the sinking.

These criticisms have been repeated throughout the web and in Korean media outlets, with even the reliably conservative Joongang Daily claiming that the disaster “underscored that [the government] lacked ability in times of crisis.”

A lack of cooperation among the agencies in charge of emergency response, combined with shifting and often contradictory messages about the progress of the rescue, has painted a picture of institutional incompetence and damaged the public’s trust in its leaders. The resignation of Prime Minister Chung Hong-won over the government’s response to the accident has served to validate much of this criticism.

The catastrophe has also shined a light on the cosy relationship between industry and governmental regulators. The Sewol had been the subject of a number of safety concerns, including a finding earlier this year by the Korea Register of Shipping (KRS) that the ship had become top-heavy and less stable after additional passenger cabins were constructed on the upper decks.

Adding to this, the owner of the ferry, Chonghaejin Marine, had been accused by a former employee of overloading ships, covering up accidents, and mistreating its workforce. Despite these troubles, the Korean Shipping Association (KSA), a trade group responsible for certifying cargo safety, gave the ship a green light to carry out its ill-fated voyage.

Executive positions in both the KRS and KSA are filled by retired government officials, who are charged with lobbying their former colleagues on behalf of their new employers.

This system is prevalent throughout Korean industry, and has been cited by the president herself as a factor in fostering the lax safety standards that led to the disaster. In her public apology following the sinking, Park referred to this arrangement as a “government mafia” and called for an elimination of the practice.

Park’s Katrina?

In many ways, the Sewol tragedy mirrors one of the more famous examples of institutional breakdown: the U.S. government’s calamitous response to Hurricane Katrina.

In that case, failure to coordinate the relief effort between state and federal agencies compounded the initial impact of the hurricane, leaving New Orleans residents stranded without food, water, or shelter for several days after the storm hit.

As with the Sewol, accusations of political cronyism abounded in the aftermath of the incident, when it was revealed that three top officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including director Michael Brown, were Republican political operatives with no experience in disaster relief management.

Americans viewed the ghastly scenes of post-Katrina New Orleans on nightly television, and wondered how their government could have so completely and utterly failed at protecting its own citizens.

As in South Korea during the aftermath of the Sewol disaster, where the finger of blame is being squarely pointed at the entire system rather than one political party, Americans initially assigned blame to both state and federal authorities.

While Park’s public support has slipped as a result of the sinking, she still enjoys a relatively robust 57 percent approval rating. Although Park, like then President George W. Bush in the early weeks following Hurricane Katrina, has largely been able to evade personal responsibility, she would be wise to take heed of his subsequent experience.

Reflecting in 2008 on the impact of the disaster, Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, noted that Hurricane Katrina “devastated President Bush.”

Through the mismanagement of the disaster, “his image as an incompetent president began to be reinforced and intensified.”

Bush’s approval ratings peaked at 45 percent in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina. But as the public perception of him began to change, he went from being seen as strong and decisive to looking bungling and inept, weighed down by Katrina as well as increasing public disillusionment with the Iraq War. His ratings plummeted, contributing to a landslide defeat of the Republican Party in the 2006 congressional elections.

Latent Outrage

Unlike Bush, Park may benefit from the shambolic state of the major opposition party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD). Founded in March through a merger of the establishment Democratic Party (DP) and the minor New Politics Party led by former independent presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, the new coalition has steadily lost ground to Park’s centre-right Saenuri Party.

By throwing in his lot with the DP, Ahn has sacrificed his most valuable political currency: his image as an outsider who can rise above traditional politics. His standing was further damaged after a dispute with his new partners led him to reverse a key campaign pledge regarding the nominating process for local candidates.

Ahn had been one of the few politicians in the country capable of providing a credible alternative to Park, and his marginalisation has paved the way for Saenuri to consolidate its hold on power in the Jun. 4 legislative elections.

Gallup polling taken during the week of the sinking showed voter support for Saenuri at 59 percent, compared to the opposition’s paltry 25 percent. The ensuing public anger at the government has so far failed to translate into gains for the NPAD.

While it is unlikely that the NPAD will provide much trouble for Park in next month’s elections, the reverberations of the Sewol tragedy will echo throughout Korean politics for years to come.

Koreans are not shy about taking to the streets to vent their anger, but the degree of shock and grief in the country right now is unprecedented in recent history, and has left people unsure of how to proceed.

Regardless of the outcome of the elections, the psychological impacts of the tragedy will continue to linger in the national consciousness. If left to fester, they will remain a latent force that could undermine the president’s ability to govern.

Mitigating the national trauma will require leadership that balances a sense of empathy with an assumption of personal responsibility, and swift actions to overhaul a system in drastic need of reform.

For Park, who is by turns viewed as uncommunicative, callous, and ineffective, the Sewol sinking may prove to be, like Bush’s Katrina, the moment when a presidency began to crumble.

Geoffrey Fattig is a graduate student at UC San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. He lives outside Seoul and writes about Korea at This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy In Focus.

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