After the Sewol disaster: the future of South Korea

The sinking of a ship packed with schoolchildren is unravelling political life in Korea.

Mark Beachill

Topics World

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The general watches over them. For now. General (aka Admiral) Yi Sun-shin, master strategist, smashed the massive Japanese fleet with a dozen or so of his hardened boats. Okay, that was, like, a thousand years ago (actually only in 1597). But it places him and his statue, towering over Seoul’s Gwanghwamun square, as one of the few heroes who inspires almost everyone in historically divided Korea. Right now, his history-defining role is being reprised and redone at the cinema. The Admiral, a three-part historical epic, speaks to a national cultural reassertiveness, both on-screen and off, in this corner of Asia.

He is currently watching over the relatives of the Sewol ferry disaster. In April, on its way from Seoul via the port of Inchon to Jeju Island, a ferry (bought secondhand from Japan) sank, dragging 300 mainly young souls to the bottom of the sea. Jeju Island is South Korea’s Hawaii, a tropical island off the south coast that spurted up, out of the sea, on black volcanic rock. On the ferry were mainly high-school children. Their time away was part of the curriculum: study never stops here. But it must also be seen as a reward for working hard at school and most probably at the after-school private study institutes (the Hagwon) that pack them in and drill them hard. They sank quickly as illegally overloaded cargo twisted and pulled the ferry down.

The general’s crowded square is South Korea’s long, thin Trafalgar Square. Immediately in front of the great man are children no older than seven or eight running through water fountains spouting directly from the pavement. They scream with pleasure, fully clothed and soaked, in the last weeks of the summer sun. One fat lad pretends to swim on the stone surface in a shallow pool. The Sewol relatives are further along in small, well-organised open tents. Shoes are off, laid at the entrances to the tents; people are chatting, but the smiles that usually come when talking with friends are muted. Hovering nearby are a few young policemen, on the edge of the crowd. On side roads there are dozens of small police coaches. Riot gear and young limbs waiting in the baking heat. It was only in the 1980s that state power in South Korea was questioned by mass demonstrations for democracy. The state is still nervous about demonstrators, even if they are the relatives of dead schoolchildren and are just waiting, not marching.

Parliament is over a mile away, on an island in the Han river that it shares with the financial district. The distance speaks volumes. Around them all, it seems, are streams of traffic. On the streets here, cars have more space than people, testament to the automobile production at the heart of the economic transformation. Korea went from Bangladesh-style poverty to near Western wealth in just 50 years. Nearby are concrete, steel and glass high-rise canyons, several of which house Korea’s main newspapers. Further out, and all around, Seoul’s population – twice that of London – lives in generally well-appointed apartment blocks. Under each of the maybe 10 to 25 floors of sleeping, eating, playing, watching, talking people, there are two or three floors of car parking. Still further below there are the underground railways, wider, more numerous and sometimes more packed – and certainly more punctual – than those of London. There are always people around you in Seoul.

Back to the square. Now the protesters have brought out several long pieces of paper with printed outlines of hundreds of happy people, mainly children. Supervised children are colouring them in. The colours bring the child-outlines to life. The contrast with the real children who faded away into the depths of the sea is heartbreaking. As I pass, a traditional petition is handed to me. I don’t really know what I am signing – the text is Korean – but I sign it anyway. The power of the protest is its human pull, and my sympathies are with the relatives. I am handed a small pamphlet in almost flawless English. It explains what happened and what the protesters want. It comes with a string necklace with a small yellow ribbon: the symbol chosen by the campaign. I have to look up what the ribbon means. I remember only the 1970s song: ‘Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree / It’s been three long years / Do you still love me?’ The ribbon’s 400-year history, starting with the English Civil War, is mainly to remember soldiers sent away. But the meaning here seems clear enough: Will you remember the victims of Sewol? Do you still love them?

In the main the protesters are waiting for justice, for proper remembrance. This might seem a simple matter: the immediate protagonists are caught and are awaiting trial. The captain of the ship and 15 crew members who seemed to abandon their young charges have been arrested. The owner of the ferry, a leader of a cult called the Salvation Sect, was found dead in mysterious circumstances after two months of being on the run. A suicide is the preferred explanation, but an autopsy has been refused. He has just been buried amid 3,000 mourners. His eldest son was pulled out of hiding, with his strikingly beautiful female assistant, and is likewise awaiting prosecution.

However, things are more complicated than bringing to book those immediately involved. The authorities seem to have bungled the rescue operation and the president in particular seemed to go missing just when firm direction might perhaps have saved lives. Additionally, the ruling party was able to mastermind a favourable media presentation of the rescue efforts, which prompted a walkout by media employees who felt they were being used to promote a skewed interpretation of events. More broadly, there are reports of some people involved in the disaster being bought off, and silenced, by wealthy individuals, including those with interests in the cargo that weighed the ferry down.

This might sound like a conspiracy theory. But South Korea’s economic miracle has been built on an open conspiracy between business and politics. The economy is dominated by the ‘chaebol’ – family-owned conglomerates backed by massive state support. This was a conscious copying of the postwar Japanese model, whose mega-corporations are known as ‘keiretsu’. Some of South Korea’s corporations, started only in the 1960s, are now household names around the world: Samsung, Hyundai, LG. Another seven or eight major groups have logos that are dotted around everyday life here.

Of course, Koreans know that dodgy dealing takes place. As a bit of background: three MPs, from both the main parties, are currently experiencing their final days of freedom. They will be tried for corruption, for accepting bribes and channelling state funds/contracts to private corporations, one of which was a kindergarten company. But they can only be arrested once parliament goes into recess, an important precaution to protect democracy from zealous, often politically motivated, state organisations.

But people here also know that they have made something of a deal with the devil. Power to private corporations, allied with powerful families, has brought with it unrivalled growth. The corporation / state system has also been, in some older people’s eyes, a bastion of power protecting the state from left-wing forces such as trade unionists and maybe even from North Korean sympathisers. So pulling too much at the ties that bind business and politics is seen as dangerous.

Daily life seems to pay no heed to the North, but the division of Korea – its own semi-private Cold War – still colours politics. Families were divided, in living memory, in the civil war that ended just over 60 years ago. Seoul has people in it whose parents or siblings died in the war. Of course, more often than not, the weapons of today are rhetorical rather than real. The North Koreans have threatened to send a 300-strong cheerleading squad with their contingent to the Asian Games in Incheon, the port city from where the Sewol sailed. Private South Korean groups send air balloons with choco-pies or USB sticks containing TV dramas to show the northerners what they are missing.

Perhaps the main consequence of the country’s division is that, in the South, there is a conservative wedge of support that bolsters the establishment. What is now a distant memory in the West – politics frozen between two competing sides – still has some play here. While political cynicism and alienation towards political representatives, and towards much of the state, are the order of the day in Western nations, this is not so affordable in South Korea, aka the Republic of Korea. It is not that the categories of left and right retain a great deal of meaning here – rather, it’s that both the division of the nation and the threat from the North increase the stakes in political life. There is a hovering existential threat, and it is just enough to stiffen political resolve. Almost as a reminder, all men must still give two years of their young lives to the armed forces. And while the families of the Sewol victims currently have a great deal of sympathy, it might not last forever. If an inquiry is allowed to pick away too much at the powerful groupings associated with South Korea’s success, and thus at the basic fabric of political life, some will think this is too high a price to pay.

So, we come to the stand-off. The families are demanding an open-ended inquiry. Such is the fear – perhaps expectation is a better word – of a cover-up that they are demanding that they should get to choose the 21 investigators who will conduct an official inquiry. The main political party wants none of this; it points out that it is elected, and therefore it should choose the people to head the investigation.

But the main party cannot simply act against the wishes of the families. It doesn’t quite have the moral authority, and hasn’t quite built the right level of public support. A pre-emptive move would backfire, especially as some party leaders are implicated in the seeming incompetence of the rescue attempts and subsequent cover-ups and misinformation about what happened. But more than this, the opposition has stopped parliamentary cooperation on all other matters until the Sewol bill is considered. This is no small matter, this bulldozing of parliamentary procedure.

But the families have also had difficulty building political clout. They must remain above the left-right divide, even if there are clear anti-establishment aspects to an open inquiry and to their desire to select ‘independents’ to staff the inquiry. Otherwise they risk a conservative political backlash. This means their campaigning remains focused largely on morality, rather than being explicitly political.

Underscoring their moral claims, and no doubt as a result of their sense of powerlessness, the Sewol relatives and some of their supporters have adopted the tactic of continually demonstrating their lack of self-interest. One relative only recently ended his hunger strike, but several more plan to go on similar strikes. Another approach taken by some family members is the ‘three steps, one bow’. Adopted from the Buddhist ritual, and deployed by Korean environmentalists in 2005, the idea is that the protester walks three steps and then bows to lie prostate on the ground, repeating this a thousand times. This can leave the protester permanently crippled. Recently, the protesters attempted to take three steps and one bow to the nearby Blue House, the heavily defended official residence of the president. The Times of London showed a picture of the Sewol protesters doing the bow before a line of police – but with no explanation in the caption, readers would have thought that the protesters were simply engaged in extreme pleading.

Pressure on the families is growing. Parliament has ground to a halt as the opposition demands the passing of a ‘Sewol Bill’. There are rumours that the families are making material demands of the authorities, suggesting they are driven by greed rather than a quest for justice. Slowly, there is a shuffling towards some sort of compromise, even if it is dictated by the ruling party. The government has announced it will take over some of the ferry lanes because, it says, the owners of the ferries do not make enough profit to pay for adequate safety and thus they need help. This week, president Park Geun-hye, following her party’s line, rejected the idea of an inquiry into the disaster with extra-judicial powers to indict. Arguing that such an inquiry would ‘shake the foundations of the separation of power and the judicial system’, she attacked opposition MPs for taking salaries while refusing to work on legislation until a Sewol Bill is passed. The pressure will, I expect, bring about a compromise inquiry acceptable to the ruling party.

In the West, families like those of the Sewol victims would find a great deal of support. Politicians, charities and other campaigners would gather to speak on the families’ behalf and in the process bask in some rarely found popularity. Here, however, there is still strong resistance by the establishment to outsourcing political legitimacy. Many on the old left, veterans of the fight to depose dictatorship in the 1980s, support the demands of the Sewol protesters. They hate the old right, linked as it is to the old dictators. The current president, is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the military dictator of South Korea from 1961 until he was assassinated by the director of the Korean CIA in 1979 (as dramatised in the movie The President’s Last Bang). The contradiction for those on the left, now largely dispersed professionals making their way up in the world, is, of course, that democracy seems not to have unseated their old foes – rather, it seems, partially at least, to have vindicated them. But can that problem really be resolved, be got around, by the left siding with the families of the Sewol victims, and hoping to bypass democracy with an independent judicial inquiry that they hope will expose dodgy links high up in the citadels of power? Is the democracy they fought for such an empty shell that they need this kind of moral crusade to shake up power?

Such is the South Korean stand-off. For now, the general watches over the families. Even their grief is not enough to unite the country behind them. The general, who represents the idea of state and people combined, is but the ghost of a united Korea.

Mark Beachill is a writer based in London.

Pictures by: Mark Beachill

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Topics World


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