My Lowy Post on the Sewol Sinking, the Captain’s Trial, and the Long Overdue Focus on Corruption in Korea

This will be my last post on the sinking of the Sewol ferry, unless the trial reveals blockbuster new information. The essay below is the longer version of a piece originally printed here for the Lowy Institute.

I actually doubt the trial will tell us much that is new. We know why the ship foundered (covered below). The most important information that could come now is why the captain and crew abandoned ship so early. They had told the passengers to stay in place, so did they not realize that they were leaving hundreds of people to drown? Korean maritime law requires crew to help passengers. Did they not see the massive dereliction of duty in abandoning hundreds of people below decks on a sinking ship? Wow. That’s pretty d— obtuse. In fact, that is probably criminal.

At the very least, they might have just said ‘run for your lives’ on the speakers. Instead, the passengers dutifully followed orders – until it was too late. That is where so much of the anger comes from. Many of the drowned were healthy young teenagers, who easily might have escaped. Instead they died in place, because the captain told them to stay. This is why people are talking about the death penalty. What possible excuse is there for not just telling people to get out anyway they can? That would have required all of 5-10 seconds on the PA system. I don’t get that at all.

Here is that essay:

“On April 16 this year, the South Korean passenger ferry Sewol capsized off the southwest coast of Korea. The ferry carried 476 people; at the time of this writing almost 300 are confirmed dead, with several dozen still missing. The Sewol was en route from Incheon port on the Yellow Sea, south to Jeju Island in the Korea Strait. Jeju is a popular island vacation destination in Korea. Well over 300 of the passengers, and the majority of the fatalities, were high school students on vacation.

Overlapping Bureaucratic Failures Cause Disaster

The cause of the sinking is not yet fully known. Apparently around 8:45 am, the ship made a sharp starboard turn. Why is unclear; initial theories suggesting a struck reef, or swerving to avoid one, have proven wrong. The turn lead to a sharp list, worsened by poorly secured cargo that came loose, far too much cargo weight, and too little ballast. As a result, the ship was top-heavy and hard to steer. Some reports have suggested the previous crewmembers had noted the instability of the ship. Others have suggested that the cargo weight may have been almost four times the recommended limit. Hence much of the investigative focus has been on safety rules and if they were followed.



But it was the following events that seem most inexplicable and outrageous to many. The captain initially told all the passengers to stay in their rooms and not exit to the deck. Helicopter video of the first hour after the listing shows few passengers on deck at a time when they might easily have escaped. And cell-phone footage from within repeatedly captures the crew’s audio alert to remain in place; most of the passengers did so. Retrospectively, the captain has argued that the water was too cold to abandon ship. But later he was one of the first to leave the ship (also caught on video), curiously no longer in his uniform. It is not clear if the ‘abandon ship’ order was ever given, or if it was properly transmitted. Many of the bodies recovered were found in passenger rooms. President Park called the captain’s actions ‘akin to murder;’ he and the entire crew have since been arrested.

Worse, only two of the lifeboats on the ship activated properly, and the coast guard response was confused. The initial call for assistance went to far away Jeju; only later did local coast guard get an alert. In fact, one of the initial calls for help came from a student passenger calling a national emergency hotline. A chain of events synergized one another, aggravating at each step what might have been far less deadly sinking: the ship was grossly overloaded and unstable; the crew did not know whom to call or what to do as events spiraled out of control; the coast guard response was slow and confused; the passengers were pointlessly kept in their rooms long after the ship was clearly sinking fast; the lifeboats failed, raising the problem of ordering the passengers into cold water; and most egregiously the captain and crew were among the first to leave, seemingly oblivious to the horrible cost of their ineptitude and dereliction of duty. It is worth noting, in conjunction with likely prosecution of the captain for murder, that South Korea still has the death penalty.

Is Korea Ready for Needed Reforms?

The aftermath of the sinking has been an unprecedented social and political upheaval in Korea. The bungled response to the sinking has sparked a major backlash against the current Park Geun Hye administration. Park has forced her prime minister and other officials to resign. Grieving parents have screamed at government officials on camera. Candlelight vigils have taken place in Seoul for weeks protesting the government’s response. Memorial locations have sprouted all over the country with yellow ribbons tied and dedicated to the deceased. Parents have marched on the Blue House – the seat of the Korean presidency. Critics on the left have even begun calling for President Park to resign – an unprecedented move in Korean politics, which would create an acting president over a care-taker government. A resignation would create turmoil.

So desperate have Korean conservatives become that they have taken to harsh criticism. Sewol critics have been accused of being North Korean sympathizers. Or that their focus on the issue has hurt the Korean economy or national image. Economic activity has indeed contracted mildly since the sinking, as people cancelled trips, vacations, and other entertainments out a sense of responsible grieving.

To stem the rising tide of vitriol, Park gave a major national address on Sewol on May 19. And to her great credit, she took the high road. There was no red-baiting. She apologized more fully than her earlier, ad hoc confused reactions. She even teared up at the end of her speech (although the majority of my university students – I teach in Korea – thought she was faking). This has calmed the waters somewhat, but more importantly, she laid out a major push to clean up Korean politics and economics. If she follows through, this could be a watershed.

Corruption is one of Korea’s biggest medium-term economic problems. (Two other large ones are demographic collapse and a stubborn emphasis on manufacturing at the expense of the service and information economy.) I have written about some of these issues before (also here and here), but it is worth reiterating that Korea’s Transparency International score is a disturbingly high 46 out of 177. Korean business leaders routinely get in trouble for bribery or fraud. Almost every Korean president has been investigated after his presidency for irregularities like kickbacks. Indeed, an investigation of that type is why former President Roh Moo-Hyun killed himself. In her post-Sewol remarks, Park has referred to corruption as an ‘evil’ which has she has not fought against hard enough, and that she will know crack down on the ‘bureaucratic mafia’ that undercut safety regulation and led to the Sewol. And there is more to come, as the investigation into the Sewol tragedy will almost certainly turn up regulatory irregularities, collusion, and corruption.

Park is now promising to create greater distance between state regulators and businesses. Specifically, she wants to prevent retired civil servants from working in businesses related to those which the regulated – a Korean version of America’s notorious revolving door between regulators and regulated. She also promised an investigation of the Sewol involving the opposition. But the next step is a much more serious root-and-branch attack on corruption.

Korea is modern, wealthy, well-educated state. There is no obvious reason for such a high TI score other than bad habit. Japan, which is very similar to Korea in social and economic structure and just 100 miles, away has a score of 19. Korea can achieve this, but it needs a depoliticized effort, and one not solely focused on the ferry tragedy.

Korea needs a wider, national anti-corruption drive, and with political distance from the government, corporations, and political parties – the entities most likely to subvert it. Instead of letting the fox police the chicken coop, a real anticorruption committee in Korea would include outsiders like civil society activists on this issue, NGOs, journalists, academics, and small business owners. All these constituencies have either suffered from or previously targeted Korean ‘networking’ (인맥) for reform. And such a committee should have the political independence akin to a special prosecutor in the US, so that the members could not be bullied by vested interests.

Sewol may be a turning point in Korean corporate governance and legacy of cronyism. Park is an unlikely reformer, but it is now tragically obvious that Korea’s second world levels of corruption are incompatible with the first world expectations of its citizens and investors. The structural causes of the Sewol sinking are almost certainly nepotism and regulatory looking-the-other-way, and weak Korean rule of law lies at the root of the so-called ‘Korea discount.’ If Park moves seriously against this, she will leave a major mark on Korea’s economic development, pulling the country into healthier, safer, cleaner growth – not just more growth. If she does not, Sewol may very well be the first line of future histories of her presidency.”

4 thoughts on “My Lowy Post on the Sewol Sinking, the Captain’s Trial, and the Long Overdue Focus on Corruption in Korea

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