Obedience did not kill: South Korea Ferry disaster opens the discussion


Student survivor of South Korean Sewol ferry boat sinking
A South Korean high school student stands on land at the Jimdo harbor wrapped in a blanket after he escapes dangerous waters that could drown him in the sinking of the Sewol ferryboat. Image: CCTV

(WNN) Seoul, South Korea, EASTERN ASIA: On Sunday morning April 27, 2014 Prime Minister of South Korea Prime Minister Chung Hong-won resigned as he apologized to the families of the children who died on board the Sewol ferryboat. The Prime Minister’s resignation came as a surprise to those who are part of the search and recovery operation where over 100 people are still missing.

“I should take responsibility for everything as the prime minister, but the government can assume no more. So I will resign as prime minister,” said South Korean Prime Minister Chung to the press on Sunday.

With 188 bodies retrieved from the sunken boat so far, along with 114 people still missing, the parents of students who had left last week for a field trip from Danwon High School, and are still missing, remain inconsolable.

The crisis was deepened as Vice Principal Kang of Danwon High School committed suicide following the ferry disaster.

“It is too hard for me to live when 200 of my students are missing. Please place all the responsibility on me. I carried forward the trip plan,” said the Vice Principal in a small note written on paper and left in his wallet after he committed suicide. “Burn my body and sprinkle the ashes in the area where the ship sank. Maybe I will become a teacher again in the afterlife for the missing students.,” Vice Principal Kang outlined in the message that was found after his death.

As South Korean high school kids put their trust in what can be construed as a faltering adult leadership, those who’s bodies are now being recovered from the dark waters of the sunken ferry probably didn’t know the dangers they faced when they were told to ‘stay put’ were critical ‘lethal’ dangers.

Or did they?

“Why can’t they tell us what’s going on?” said the recorded voice of one student on board as the Sewol began to tip into the water. “The fact that they asked us to wear the life-jackets, doesn’t that mean the boat is sinking?” continued another student’s voice.

This miraculous video recording was made by a surviving student’s smartphone. Soon after the student’s question was made, the sound of a voice speaking over speakers can be heard on the video saying, “Once again please do not move from your current location.”

Would these students have disobeyed an order from an authority figure to not leave their cabin if they had understood their own lives were on the line?

I feel is yes, they certainly would have disobeyed and left the boat immediately, especially if they knew what was going to happen next. Their respect for their own families to stay alive would have been a push in this direction.

But others in the media have wrongfully wanted to place part of the blame for the children’s deaths on Korea’s religious history of Confucianism, that puts respect for authority figures above all else, even life itself.

It is guessed that many of these young students, most 15 to 17 years old, were excited to be on what was described as a four day “fun-filled” school field trip. Their trip to visit the popular vacation island of Jeju, whose white beaches are said to be beautiful, was supposed to be a time away to enjoy the beach. The disaster shows a depth of tragedy though as numerous child bodies with broken fingers were found during the recovery efforts in the past days. This is thought to have happened as some of the children tried frantically to escape their rooms as they tried to claw their way out of the ferry cabins as the waters began to rise quickly.

But their efforts, even with the strength of youth, could not overcome the power of the quickly shifting waters that surrounded the ferryboat.

Modernization in South Korea today, especially for youth living in Seoul, has brought both traditional and new traditions to families in the region. But tradition has not prevented a rebellious spirit in many youth in South Korea. The ever-present push by parents for their children to attend the college that the family chooses still does exists. In spite of the pressures toward eduction, teenage students will do everything they can to get into the college they feel their parents will approve of the most.

But not everything in a teen student’s life is traditional by a long stretch. Most teenagers in Seoul are glued to their cellphones, where they can have private and sometimes secret conversations with friends close or far away, for better or worse, away from their parents influence.

Trendy shops in Seoul with flashy clothes, new music and pop cosmetics are most often fan locations for high school youth.

Video game parlors that are the go-to-places for kids with video addiction are everywhere in the city. As early as a decade ago, gamer addiction continues to be a trouble for numerous youth in the region. This is true even though the South Korean ‘Shut Down Law‘ went into effect in November 2011, placing legal restrictions on children younger than 16 with a law that forbids them to play video games in public after midnight. Those rebel youth who want  to go against the system continue to be a late night gamer will figure out a way to do so no matter what, say some of the other youth who are also gamers.

Twelve days after the Sewol disaster, the parents of the children who are still missing, are still caught in what seems like an endless misery in the recovery mission of their children. At this point it is thought that no survivors will be recovered. With the pressure of cold sea water closing doors and causing debris to be scattered everywhere in the water where objects can only be seen in dark water less than two feet away, recovery of the remaining bodies is not an easy task.

On Saturday (April 26) divers found the bodies of an additional 48 girl students who were all crammed together in a one cabin that was too small for so many people. All the girls were wearing their life-vests. It is thought that another cabin of girl students will be discovered in the next few days with a similar number of casualties.

In the coming months the cause of the Sewol ferryboat’s sinking will be thoroughly investigated.

Following the initial early arrest of Sewol Captain Lee Joon-seok, the 15 member crew that navigated the ferryboat are now in custody.

Some experts are saying already that financial short-cuts may have caused a shift in the weight of the vessel as the ship’s human capacity and cabins were increased. This investigation on the cause of the catastrophe may take more than one year to finally come to some kind of conclusion.


As a human rights journalist with a career that began in public radio broadcasting through an internship at Pacifica radio station WPFW-FM in Washington, D.C., WNN founder Lys Anzia has a strong dedication in bringing the highest quality journalism available to the public. In addition to Anzia’s featured stories on WNN, her written and editorial work can also be seen on WUNRN – Women’s UN Report Network, Vital Voices, Women’s Media Center, World Bank and UNESCO publications, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Reliefweb, The Guardian News Development Network and the Nobel Women’s Initiative, among others.

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