Sewol Disaster: Why we Must Question some Aspects of Korean Culture

jinjoo2713 (Naver User)

In the aftermath of great tragedies, one must be thorough in drawing conclusions about the causes and the way people respond in times of trouble and be careful not to explain away matters on handy scapegoats.  Asking pertinent questions is very much a part of this.

jinjoo2713 (Naver User)

In the aftermath of great tragedies, one must be thorough in drawing conclusions about the causes and the way people respond in times of trouble and be careful not to explain away matters on handy scapegoats.  Asking pertinent questions is very much a part of this.
The captain of the Sewol and his crew were obviously in the wrong, their individual actions and orders cost lives and they should rightly be brought to justice.  However, the reasons behind their actions are complex.  It is convenient for everyone, including Park Geun Hye and her government, to brush away the issues highlighted by this disaster as the result of solely individual errors and incompetence.  This may be so, but they have to be more thorough than that.

There have been a variety of articles written that place a fair amount of blame on Korean culture for what happened (many from Koreans themselves), and inevitably people have become upset, calling this simplistic and racist (mostly non-Koreans).  I have two thoughts on this; 1) Yes, it is simplistic to say that culture is the sole cause for the disaster, of course it’s not, but I have not heard anyone make this claim, only that it may be part of the reason for it or exacerbated it; 2) It is not racist, how can it be?  We are talking about culture, not DNA. People that constantly make this claim are using a kind of language which is not true, unhelpful, and emotive.

The truth is, individuals are significantly influenced by the culture in which they are brought up and this drastically impacts on their individual thoughts and actions.  It is too simplistic to say culture caused the disaster, but did it play a role?  I would argue that the evidence so far suggests it may very well have done, and it is not wrong to suggest it as a possibility and should not be insulting to do so.

I think there are two main aspects of Korean culture which may have helped cause or exacerbate the catastrophe (and I think they are linked):

  1. Hierarchical Respect Culture
  2. A disregard for rules and regulations and lack of knowledge of safety procedures

Of the two factors, number 2 might be the most important.  “But this hasn’t got anything to do with culture”, I hear you say.  But you’d be wrong.  Sure one can’t blame it on Confucianism (the usual turn-to) or pinpoint it to other parts of cultural history, but a lack of respect for safety protocols, rules, and regulations is a modern day cultural issue in Korea and is something all of us who live here regularly see. This is why I shake my head in disbelief that articles like this pop-up, titled “Stop Blaming Korean Culture for Last Week’s Ferry Disaster“, especially when they go on to write this:

“The real problem, at all levels, seems to be protocol—or rather, the absence of one. Kim Su Bin, a classmate of Lim’s at Danwon High School in Ansan, pointed out that passengers did not receive any safety instruction before or during the trip, and that life jackets were available on the fourth floor but not on the third. A communication’s officer for the Sewol has admitted to the crew’s lack of evacuation training, or the enforcement thereof. And the indecision written all over the transcripts between harbor officials and the Sewol crew reveals an apparent dearth of actionable protocol for either side in the event of such a calamity.”

The author then goes on to quote a journalist in South Korea:

“The main point is not culture,” said Jaehwan Cho, a Seoul-based journalist covering the events on his Twitter, in an interview on Sunday. “The main point is government structure… We need to turn our eyes to the government situation, government atmosphere. If we can revise those things, I don’t think this kind of disaster will happen again.”

He is at least partly right, government is an issue, but the lack of a safety protocol, instructions, lack of training, etc, could very well be heavily linked to culture because is not something unique to this situation and it is not all the government’s fault.  And after all, where does government come from if not the people and the culture that created it?

When I spoke to my wife about all this, she told me that when she worked as a nurse in a hospital in Korea she was given no fire safety training, but legally she was supposed to, she was even given a form to sign to say she had.  When she said she had no such training, she was simply told to sign it by her superiors anyway.  Irresponsible of my wife? In the atmosphere of the Korean workplace, in reality she had no choice whatsoever, you simply can’t question your superiors, if she had refused, her life would have been made very difficult (a subtle way respect hierarchies reduce safety).

So, if there was a fire in that hospital, you might well have had a similar situation occurring as to what happened on the Sewol; panicked people searching for members of staff to tell them where to go and what to do and the response and information would have been poor because the problem is that the patients in the hospital and the passengers on the ferry would have had about as much information on safety as the people who were supposed to be in charge.

Also, people in junior positions are regularly thrown into the deep end and given responsibility for things they perhaps should have been better trained and equipped for. In my wife’s case, she became a surgery room nurse and her training consisted of sitting-in on only one or two surgeries and watching (she did many different kinds of joint surgery) and then told to learn terms and instruments at home on her own time. Basically, she had no training and learnt on the job – and was often shouted at and bullied by doctors when she made inevitable mistakes every now and then.  To make matters worse, in the quest for profits and the busy world of Korea, she was forced to rush from patient to patient, hastily sterilising instruments (and often having minor accidents as a result; cuts, burns etc), and feeling extreme pressure to finish important and possibly hazardous tasks quickly (빨리 빨리!).

I see this kind of thing everywhere in Korea, therefore I think it is fair to say that this has become part of the culture and needs changing.  Whether you agree with this or not, my hypothesis is not racist because I am saying it is cultural, not racial, and because it is not about race, it is something that can be changed; it is not written in their DNA and not set in stone.

The exact reason why I believe hierarchical respect culture was a factor is different to most other commentators on this subject.  I simply don’t know what passengers from Western countries would have done had they been given the same orders to stay below deck by the captain.  I actually think saying they were being overly obedient is probably a bit simplistic, perhaps this was a factor, but I think this is something we can’t really know and it is harsh and insensitive to blame the passengers, who were obviously scared victims of someone else’s mistakes and a desperately unfortunate situation.

As I have mentioned already the effect of respect culture is probably more subtle on this disaster.  It is the role of the crew and the captain that needs more focus and these are the questions I would ask:

  1. Why didn’t any of the crew question the captain’s orders, and if they did, why did it not have any effect?
  2. Why was the captain away from the bridge when the accident occurred?
  3. Why did it take so long to correct the original order of staying below deck?
  4. Why did they go off the original course in the first place?
  5. Why was the response so slow by rescue teams?
Of course we don’t know the answers to any of these questions yet, but I am going to highlight some of the side effects I see day to day in Korea of rigid respect hierarchies and I will leave it to you to connect the dots:
  1. People rarely question orders of superiors, even when they are obviously wrong sometimes.
  2. The sense of entitlement being of higher age or rank gives people often affords them the luxury of sitting back and letting those below them do most of the difficult work.
  3. When mistakes are made by elders or those of superior rank, they can be very stubborn in admitting them and will often carry on regardless or hope everything will be alright in order to save face.
  4. Protocol, rules, and regulations are often ignored by people who have high status because they feel they know better and are above them.
  5. Respect hierarchies are inefficient, causing a lack of initiative in individuals and can cause slow responses by waiting for orders of superiors.
Now I am not saying these factors are all definitely related and this is exactly what happened, but it is everyone’s responsibility to consider all of these a possibility.  In fact they are questions you could ask people of any culture, but Korean culture accentuates things when it comes to issues of status and respect.  If you refuse to acknowledge them for fear of being a racist or upsetting those of another culture, you may be sending others to their doom in the future.  People’s lives, whoever and wherever they are, are more important than the risk of offending cultural sensibilities.

Finally, if someone were to hypothesise that the 7/7 bombings in the UK had something to do with British culture, why on earth would I be offended?  I just don’t understand it.  In fact, one could make a good argument that British culture played a role (over-politeness, political correctness, and tolerance of even the dangerous and intolerant for fear of giving offence) in the creation of the Muslim radicals (the UK seems to be quite good at cultivating them) who hatched the plot and carried it out.  Not only that, but even if it had nothing to do with British culture in the end, it would have been our responsibility to question it (and many did) and at least rule it out.

In fact the two examples correlate rather nicely because in the case of the 7/7 bombings it was the actions of psychotic and brainwashed individuals; in the Sewol disaster it seems it was the actions of incompetent individuals in positions of responsibility.  We can leave it at that on both disasters and hope both never happen again, but it must be discovered whether in each case such disasters were a one-off or whether there is something about each culture that might encourage future similar events.  In the case of British culture, might it encourage radical Muslims to flourish?  And is there something about Korean culture that encourages incompetence, danger and confusion, in potentially dangerous situations, to flourish?

The only way to find out and be as thorough as possible in avoiding future disasters is to ask questions, which it seems is easy and not at all insulting to do with British or American culture, but when we do it to non-Western cultures like Korea, we suddenly turn into racist simpletons.


Leave a Comment