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Hither and Yon

WorldTribune.com: Exploiting tragedy for political gain

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
SEOUL — The tragedy of the sunken South Korean ferry the Sewol is now old news. The international press barely covers the long aftermath as divers look for the last missing bodies. The news has receded from the lead position in the Korean media and sometimes barely makes front pages.
The story, though, goes on in the form of recriminations and political backbiting and second-guessing that’s not likely to solve anything — and could have a destructive effect.
Anti-government politicos have seized upon the tragedy as a device to exploit for their own political ends. Demonstrators carrying candles in paper cups are visible on the streets of central Seoul and around the memorial hall in the suburb of Ansan where most of the 304 victims were going to school.
Korean-Americans have placed a full-page ad in The New York Times blaming South Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye and her government for the tragedy — both the sinking and the failure to rescue all but 172 of the 476 people on board.
The tragedy presents Park’s foes with another issue ripe for exploitation. Watching some of them the other night, I wondered if they were mourners, bereaved relatives and their friends.
Quickly it became apparent, though, that the protesters were almost joyous, thrilled, as they pounced on another issue with which to attack the government.
These people were not in mourning. If anything, they were celebrating the chance to attack a government they despise.
The demonstration reminded me of similar protests over the years in which activists, desperate to embarrass the government, have picked on just about any issue they could find — the months of protests six years ago against the import of American beef, said to be tainted by “mad cow disease,” come to mind.
More recently, activists have been attempting, with less than overwhelming success, to demonstrate that Park stole the 2012 presidential election with the aid of the pervasive National Intelligence Service.
Politicization of the Sewol tragedy represents a cynical effort at taking advantage of those who suffered the prolonged torment of a tragedy that inflicted unimaginable suffering not only on its victims but also on the bereaved.
No one would deny that authorities on all levels, in numerous agencies, could have done far better and have much to learn. Park’s foes, however, wish to manipulate this obvious truth to suit their political ambitions. They see the memorial hall, the lines of mourners, the media attention as an opportunity to advance an agenda.
One might expect North Korea’s propaganda machine to make much of the tragedy. Whoever writes this stuff in Pyongyang has no problem leaping upon any misfortune in South Korea as a pretext for denunciation of whatever government happens to be in charge in Seoul.
We would expect no less from a regime that likens President Obama to “an evil African monkey” and President Park to “an old whore.”
In South Korea, though, anti-government critics would do well to sublimate their political agenda in the interests of an investigation that should result in serious improvement of everything from inspection of vessels to training of crews to search and rescue.
Above all, investigators have to get to the bottom of a system where gift-and-favor giving lead to flagrant violations and needless suffering.
Beyond the obvious, just about everyone has gratuitous advice on what to do. Someone has suggested a “czar” to oversee all agencies in the event of tragedy.
Others have berated the media for irresponsible, misleading reporting — and suggested more controls on coverage. There was even a demand that the media not go near the bodies.
Should the media, then, not go to war zones, not see the devastation of war, of famine and floods and typhoons, inevitably including the dead and dying? Such advice could only come from one who’s never witnessed any of that — and neglected to go to the scene and see how the media was behaving.
My observation of the Korean media was they were doing the best they could under trying conditions. They may have seen a lot more than I did, but I saw only body bags, not the bodies inside.
It would not have been a good idea to keep the media from approaching the mortuary in a tent by the docks or to warn us away from the bereaved. The notion of media suppression is regrettable. Will censorship be next?
The investigation has a long long way to go. Cynical exploitation by activists and kibitzing by know-nothings won’t help.
Authorities have to get very tough and precise in going after not only the crew, whose flight has been well documented, but also a network of owners and relatives and investors — the first step in reform of a system in which unscrupulously cutting dangerous corners for profit has to stop.
Columnist Donald Kirk, a former war correspondent, visited Jindo after the Sewol tragedy as well as the Sampoong Department Store after its collapse in 1995 and the Daegu subway after the arson in 2003. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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