Sunday, May 11, 2014

Politicizing the Sewol Tragedy

As soon as I saw the footage of the Sewol sinking, I knew that this was not a topic that I wanted to write about. I was too angry to write about it and I knew that I needed to calm myself to do it justice. But as I found out more about the tragedy, I became even angrier.

The passengers being told to stay put in the lower decks of the ship while the highest ranking crew members abandoned ship even as their passengers were doomed to their fate boiled my blood. The ship’s company knowingly overloading the ship with cargo and the government’s safety inspectors having given the ship a passing grade despite the fact that malfunctioning equipment prevented the deployment of liferafts infuriated me. The news media proving to the world that they were nothing more than glorified stenographers was hardly surprising but just as infuriating.

I am still angry and if I write about the disaster in my current state of mind, I don’t think I could do the departed any justice. So I will not write any more about the sinking or the deaths or their immediate causes and effects. If I ever decide to write about this disaster again, it will only be after the necessary legal proceedings have taken place.

The one thing that I am going to write about is the foulest types of human beings that I have come across thus far in this lamentable story – the politicians.

After the opposition party made calls for the president’s entire cabinet to resign, the Prime Minister accepted the prime minister’s traditional duty of being a convenient scapegoat and resigned (since 2004, Korea has had eight prime ministers). However, in a quick turnabout that can only be found in politics, the opposition claimed that the resignation of the Prime Minister was irresponsible. Representative Ahn Cheol-soo asked rhetorically whether it was appropriate for the National Assembly to confirm a new Prime Minister in the midst of such a crisis, quickly forgetting that it was his party that was initially calling for the entire cabinet to resign.

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Even before people could get accustomed to the opposition’s new narrative, however, there were further calls for the president to resign. Furthermore, the National Assembly decided to to push ahead with a parliamentary investigation into the tragedy even as there are still people yet to be recovered from the ship.

Never mind that President Park is not an omnipotent or omniscient god who could simply will the ship to resurface. Never mind that despite the initial rescue attempts being botched, it was not as though no attempt was made to rescue the passengers. In fact, a sailor and a civilian diver have so far died in the rescue/recovery attempts. This Wikipedia link also lists the steps that were taken to rescue the passengers.

The latest call for resignation has been aimed at the Director of Veterans Affairs for “comparing the Sewol tragedy with the 9/11 terrorist attack in the United States.”

Or at least that’s the charge that the opposition party is making. What the director actually said was:

The president and the government are being made to unfairly suffer over the sinking of the Sewol. Whenever something bad happens, the first thing that people do is to attack the president and the government. When the United States faces a crisis, Americans unite but we attack the government and the president. In the case of the United States, right after the 9/11 terror attacks, President Bush’s approval ratings shot up to 90%.”

The man basically whined about the opposition giving his party a hard time; and apparently he is not aware of the lack of political unity that has defined American politics since the 9/11 attacks. It was a childish, impudent, and foolish statement to make, which indeed deserved rebuke. But calls for his resignation stink of an opposition party that has gone mad with political opportunism in the face of by-elections to be held in June.

The opposition party’s official name is the New Politics Alliance for Democracy Party (새정치민주연합당). There does not seem to be anything new about the opposition party’s politics.

Nothing ever seems to change in politics
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As despicable as the politicians may be, however, they seem like paragons of virtue compared to political groups (whose behavior is very similar to political action committees in the United States).

In a “tribute video” that was uploaded by the Korean Teachers’ Union, the narrator likened the students on board the Sewol to Kim Ju-yeol, a student who was killed by a tear-gas shell in 1960. The narrator in the video made sure to mention that the young man was killed by the Rhee Syngman administration. The narrator continued to liken them to Park Jong-chul, a student who was tortured and killed in 1987. The narrator made sure to mention that he was killed by the Chun Doo-hwan administration.

The narrator also went on to mention that those who were most responsible for the students’ death was former President Lee Myung-bak and President Park Geun-hye.

As for President Lee, it was his supposedly neo-liberal policies that allowed the Chonghaejin Marine Company, which owned the Sewol, to buy such an old ship in the first place (the ship was originally built in 1994). For her part, President Park is to blame because the deaths of the students is the result of her administration’s “murderous incompetence.”




(One of the benefits of writing about economics for as long as I have is that I can quote myself.  In regards to President Lee Myung-bak's supposed neo-liberal policies, despite their protestations, none of those who ever accuse others of practicing neo-liberalism ever seems to be able to show actual proof of deregulation.  Have the number of regulations increased or decreased? Do governments spend more or less money on regulations? Are there more or less regulators or bureaucrats? What about the number of legislation on the books? What about the number of administrative agencies today versus thirty years ago?  The neo-liberalism that progressives so often accuse their opponents of is, sadly, a myth.)

The narrator then went on to say that on the day the ferry sank, President Park apologized to the public in regards to the case of the fabrication of evidence by the National Intelligence Service against a Seoul Metropolitan Government official. The narrator then rhetorically asks just how much that must have hurt President Park’s pride and wonders whether that might have gotten her to want the Sewol to sink so that she could move on from that scandal.

Of course, the members of the opposition party are not the only people who are keen to politicize tragedy for political gain. The following is a video of then Representative Park excoriating the late President Roh Moo-hyun in a speech that she gave in the National Assembly for failing to save the life of Kim Sun-il, a Christian missionary who was kidnapped and beheaded by Islamists in Iraq in 2004. The irony is that then Representative Park criticized President Roh for failing to uphold Article 34, Section 6 of the Republic of Korea Constitution, which states:


The State shall endeavor to prevent disasters and to protect citizens from harm.

That law is quite ambiguous and can therefore mean practically anything, which means that it means practically nothing. However, that is a topic for another day. It was ironic because that is the same law that Representative Ahn Cheol-soo is using to criticize President Park. To paraphrase a popular phrase – Karma can be a pain.


Politicizing tragedy is neither new nor unique to Korea. But it does not make it any less despicable.

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1 comment:

  1. I have obviously followed this tragedy. I'm a parent. I still believe this is an opportunity for some kind of public dialog. One thing I can say is, welcome to America. We can kill, maim or poison large numbers of people through greed, bureaucratic boondoggles, defunding, lack of political will, and benign neglect. I believe Koreans have a better opportunity than Americans to fix this problem. Politicians don't want this, business leaders shouldn't want this, nobody who touches this tragedy wanted this to happen. Businesses have to decide that it's not in their best interest to kill people. Politicians have to decide that some issues need to be decided with a clear head and bipartisanship. The public should demand that their political leaders cooperate with each other for a solution. I know this sounds like the beginning of a cheap fantasy novel.

    I have this glimmer of hope for SK for a couple of reasons. First, there's less of you, 50 million as opposed to 350 million. Lack of diversity in the population. Even though Koreans are split down the middle with a smaller segment likely being undecided, Koreans after all have a more universally practiced social structure. I believe the political and social divide between Koreans is not nearly as deep or diverse as in my country. Koreans proved they can change their political landscape already. Why can't they do it again? If it means their lives and the lives of their children shouldn't they make the attempt? No blaming outside political oppression on this one. This is straight up an SK domestic policy problem to address.

    You also understand that if Korea doesn't handle the aftermath of this in a successful manner lazy stupid western journalists are going to blame it on the "culture", again. Actually they will wail "Confucian culture" has something to do with the lack of political will as well as an individuals ability to function. Just another opportunity for the media to display their shoddy research, linear thinking, and outright pandering. Make you want to get away from it all doesn't it?

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