Searching for Souls, and Soul-Searching, in South Korea

The Wednesday morning edition of the Korea Times contained a fateful cartoon about the plight of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which is believed to have crashed hundreds of miles off the Australian coast. The caricature shows a submersible being lowered into the water to search for the plane, with a bawling Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak strapped to the bottom. A figure representing the families of the lost victims looks on and gives the Malaysian premier an unforgiving thumbs down.

The cartoon took on heartbreakingly tragic resonance that same day when a massive South Korean cruise ship, the Sewol, capsized on its way to the resort island of Jeju. Of the 462 passengers on board — 325 of them high school students — hundreds remain unaccounted for. Just as in the case of the missing plane, the early hours of the rescue effort were marred by confusion, inaccurate information and perceived — if not confirmed — ineptitude. Frustrated and angry, family members of the missing hurled bottles of water at top South Korean officials who were trying to soothe them. Malaysian authorities suffered similar indignities in Kuala Lumpur. South Korean President Park Geun-hye was fast resembling Najib. While most South Korean editorial pages are still processing the extent of the tragedy, Twitter and other social media outlets are aflame with outrage at the Seoul government.

It remains far too early to assign blame for the ship’s sinking. Some reports speculate that the captain — a backup — chose a riskier shortcut to make up time after the Sewol’s departure from the port of Inchon was delayed by several hours; dodging between islands, he may have hit a reef or rocks in the fog. Other accounts suggest that the ship may have strayed slightly off course and tried to turn too suddenly to correct, forcing cargo and vehicles to list to one side and tip the huge ferry over. Questions remain about when and how quickly the order to evacuate was given, and whether it was immediately conveyed to passengers: Some survivors say the only message they heard was to stay in their cabins and wait. South Korean police are looking into prosecuting the Sewol’s captain, who suspiciously happened to be among the first people rescued from the ship.

Right now the priority remains the rescue effort, as hundreds of divers and dozens of ships and helicopters race to find survivors in the chilly waters. But the instant and undeniable outrage of South Koreans is in some ways a testament to how far the country has come, how much citizens now expect of their government. The last accident of similar scope — another sinking of a passenger ferry, in which nearly 300 people lost their lives — took place more than 20 years ago. Around that time, as the Chosun Ilbo pointed out, South Korea suffered a series of major disasters, from a gas pipe explosion that killed more than 100 to a department store collapse that left more than 500 dead. The fact that South Korea’s gross domestic product per capita at that point was a third less than today’s doesn’t make such tragedies any more acceptable or bearable. Still, South Koreans clearly feel they have a right to expect more from their government now, that such disasters are the province of poorer nations with shoddier safety records.

Living next door to an unhinged Stalinist state, South Koreans are asked to place great faith in their leaders; in return, they demand competence and clarity. As the uncle of one of the missing high schoolers asked a New York Times reporter, given the uncertain response to the Sewol disaster, “how can we trust the authorities if a war breaks out?”

Nisid Hajari writes editorials on Asia. He was previously managing editor and foreign editor of Newsweek magazine, as well as managing editor of Newsweek International. He was also an editor and writer at Time Asia in Hong Kong. He is based in Singapore.

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