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Hither and Yon

Future Korea Weekly: Tragedy of the Sewol

JINDO -- The Korean response to the tragedy of the Sewol is both personal and corporate. On a personal level, individuals come to Jindo for the day, for an overnight stay, maybe for a few days, offering their services in food stands, clean-up crews, telephone centers, anywhere they might be useful.

Some of them come from company offices around Korea, others on their own. On the corporate level, Korea’s hugest business names, Samsung, Hyundai, SK, many others are visible here offering everything from giant cranes and floating docks to telephone services and communications.

Food is free at the gymnasium where hundreds of relatives and friends of the trapped passengers wait for the sad news, the discovery of a body, the finality of the word that there can be no more survivors.

I have been able to watch this display of volunteerism, of national coming-together, from a close perspective. As I write, I am at a table on the side of the gymnasium floor where bereaved relatives, mostly fathers and mothers, sit stolidly, glumly, resting and waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

Very occasionally I hear an outburst of moaning and weeping, but for the most part the atmosphere is overwhelmingly calm and quiet. Only in protests against the government for the slow recovery does one hear voices raised in anger, loud demands to “bring us our children,” or “bring the bodies.”

Seeing the volunteers at all levels, one has to admire the passion with which Koreans come together in this time of distress. There is a deep sense of national pride on top of shame that such a tragedy could have occurred.

You sense the same kind of unity that you see on very different types of responses on occasions such as the cheering of the Red Devils in World Cup 2002 or the nationwide applause when the International Olympic Committee selected Pyongcheong for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

You might wonder if the volunteerism is overdone, if the emotions are too intense, but a foreigner has to see it as a reflection of the Korean character. Would such volunteerism be so organized and so overwhelming in the United States or any other country?

I do think, in the U.S., you would see a tremendous outpouring under similar circumstances, after such a tragedy, but I doubt if it would be so unified and so clearly focused. That’s partly because the U.S. is much larger, both geographically and in terms of population, and also because the U.S. is made up of so many different racial and ethnic groupings. Also, a lot of the Korean response has to do with the need to compensate for an event that many tell me is humiliation for all Koreans.

Are Koreans overwrought? Over the years, there have been many disasters that cost hundreds of lives. I am thinking of the shootdown by a Soviet fighter jet of the Korean flight as it passed over the Kamchatka peninsula in 1983, of the Daegu subway arson that killed nearly 200 people in 2003, of the Sampoong Department store collapse that killed 500 people in 1995. The list goes on and on.

Yes, the response to the ferry sinking seems more intense, more overwhelming than in the aftermath of those tragedies, but there are two reasons for that. For one thing, more than half the passengers were high school kids, and the thought of kids aboard on a holiday cruise to Jeju is intensely saddening.

Worse, they died slow deaths, trapped on the boat, ordered to wait below for help, unable to make their way out. The thought of children dying in prolonged agony is difficult for anyone. For the parents, there is also the prolonged agony of waiting for divers to recover the bodies, one by one, decomposing in the cold waters.

When you consider the special horror of this tragedy, the Korean response hardly seems overdone. Here is a case that is really different from the others, horrible though they were. You can hardly compare this event to the much greater loss of life inflicted by the earthquake and tsunami that swept over the Japanese coastline, inundating a nuclear power plant, in March 2011, leaving more than 18,000 people dead or missing and presumed dead.

The damage there was caused by an act of nature, not human error, but controversy swirls around the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Activists claim the radiation from the plant has endangered millions, though the significance of the fallout is far from clear.

One big difference is that the high loss of life in the ferry accident could have been prevented. The failure to get the passengers on deck, wearing life preservers and/or life vests, the delay in getting rescue vessels to the sides of the sinking vessel, the escape of the captain and most of his crew all suggest terrible human errors and negligence.

You can’t blame Koreans for wanting somehow to show their deep concern, for wanting to make up for this awful tragedy. If they can never bring back the lives of those who died, perhaps the response will compel companies and individuals to take far more precautions needed to shield people from more such tragedies.

Donald Kirk, senior editor, Future Korea, author and journalist
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