Sunday, April 20, 2014

(a)Musings: The Sewol Disaster

It's been more than four days now, and the combined efforts of over 500 divers have yielded comparatively little in the way of recovered, life jacket-clad bodies. My mom's coworkers are asking her all kinds of questions about the sinking of the ferry, and I think now would be a good time to jot down my opinion about the whole situation. This is not a terrible accident like any other; it's the culmination of a complex and deep-rooted series of sociocultural deficiencies.

You're probably like, hold up cynical girl, is now really the time to be slinging criticism from the comfort of your cozy little apartment? Yes, it is, and I hope the rest of Korea is not only doing the same, but looking inward and directing it at the right targets. While the hapless captain is absolutely to blame, he's also going to become a convenient scapegoat for much larger issues.

So let's start with Captain Lee Joon Seok, whose entire family is finished in this country forever. He's 68 or 69 years old, and the most recent reports I've seen (from within the hour) say that he'd handed the helm over to the young, completely inexperienced third mate (while he, I don't know, retreated to his cabin to count the money he was later photographed drying?) in somewhat tricky waters and then peaced out. This appears to be a common occurrence on the well-mapped and oft-traveled route from Incheon to Jeju. Fair enough, but is this guy not too old to be captaining and calling the shots on a vessel that carries more people than an airbus A340? How old are airline pilots when they retire? Let me save you the 3 seconds it'll take to Google that: the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots is 65.

Many Korean companies gently force people into retirement as young as 45 and often well before 65, meaning that there are some people who only work for a few years of their lives, assuming their family/husband's family is well-off enough to support them. The other day I talked to a woman who got her first job at 29 and expects to retire before 50. While this is not the norm, it begs the question of why someone whose occupation carries the heavy responsibility of so many lives would not need to retire at a reasonable age. This most basic of questions underscores the entire point I'm making here: all of the problems in this situation stem from a culturally pervasive lack of awareness and common sense.

Captain Lee infamously instructed the ferry's passengers to remain in their cabins, supposedly assuring them that help would arrive within ten minutes. Okay, that makes sense. The first photos I saw of the tilted vessel were dotted with bright orange life jackets and a multitude of smaller vessels, all of which hurried to the scene as soon as someone radioed for help. It looked like the situation was under control. 
However, the kids remained on the ship for at least 30 and possibly up to and over 40 minutes asking themselves what was going on and whether or not they were going to die right up until she listed heavily and they found themselves trying to cram through narrow corridors in a disorganised panic at a 45-degree angle. There were no further announcements because Captain Lee and some of the crew fucked off after making the first one. Their lifeboat was one of only two out of 34 that was successfully deployed.
Everyone's best guess is that the ship hit a large rock that breached its hull, maybe in water too shallow to navigate properly. Because there are no underwater obstacles at the site of its demise, one must assume that the ship just kept going after the impact. The crew must have been aware of what had happened. Why have we not heard about any announcements concerning this? Why were people not shuffled out onto the deck in an orderly fashion and then into the lifeboats at the first sign of catastrophic damage? Oh, right - because the whole safety spiel everyone loves sitting through whenever they get onto a boat or plane like this was skipped completely at embarkation. At least, that's what I heard. So, not only did the captain and some of the crew head for the hills, but they left behind an enormous boat full of teenagers who probably didn't know how to swim and were likely never given any emergency safety instructions.

For those of you who have never heard this, many Koreans do not know how to swim and are afraid of the water. I've seen adults wearing full-on life jackets in the Hangang Park public pool, which is only chest-deep at its deepest point.

Good ol' Captain Lee is now defending his decisions or lack thereof in the media, claiming that he was concerned about people drowning or getting swept out to sea if they abandoned ship haphazardly. 

That's what the lifeboats and safety instructions were for, jackass. Stop digging.

Something he'd never be able to defend, though, is the elusive photo of himself drying wet banknotes on his (or a) bed while being questioned by investigators. The Korean government has almost certainly censored this and removed it from the Internet; it's unsearchable even though it was initially reported by international sources such as The Guardian. Actually, some of the people I instruct work for and even own the companies that are responsible for this. Some consulting firms employ specialists who do damage control and otherwise manipulate a company's public image by using programming algorithms to eliminate photos, articles, and other unwanted information from search engine results and/or promote positive ones. These companies often work not only for other private entities but governments themselves, which really makes you wonder how much crucial stuff we miss once someone sits across from you and casually explains the entire process. It's basically a form of lobbying.

Anyway, everyone knows about it in spite of the lack of evidence. Even if it's just a rumour, this guy already has well over 300 nails in his coffin, so it doesn't really matter.

The most important point so far, though, is not that the public (justifiably) wants Captain Lee to be drawn and quartered for his appalling handling of the situation, but that nearly everyone on board listened to him. Kids here have an extremely rigid concept of social structure and authority drilled into their brains from such a young age that they are effectively brainwashed. You could easily argue this about any level or type of social conditioning anywhere, but it's so prevalent in Korea that it makes me want to scream.

In a nutshell, if you haven't read any of my rants before, kids are sent to kindergarten as young as two. Their hobbies are usually chosen for them very early on. It's common for them to be in school and doing extracurriculars and cram school for 10+ hours a day, and many have no time to play with friends. They wear uniforms and mostly listen to the same K-pop, watch the same TV dramas and play the same smartphone games. They are exhausted, withdrawn, apathetic, and never mature emotionally. While their parents nag them and put an immense amount of pressure on them to succeed academically, they are simultaneously babied and coddled until they move out, which is not uncommonly above the age of 30. If you're wondering how hollow shells of people like this manage to get such high test scores, it's because there is no academic integrity in Korea whatsoever. Everyone cheats and plagiarises, a lot. There are basically no consequences or disciplinary actions taken at any point in life. You can't fail in school, and you can't get fired from your company. If you're not married before 30 something's probably wrong with you, so people often marry someone they barely know shortly after meeting them, and then they never see each other because of their outrageously long working hours and commutes, so it mostly works out. Seniority is achieved by age, not merit. Wading through countless layers of constantly-changing and maddeningly inefficient bureaucracy, you will always have to listen to the guy who's older than you, even if he's a completely unqualified moron. Virtually every minute of your life is planned out, and there's only really one way to do things. I've seen first-hand the unadulterated chaos a single train delay causes during rush hour; order breaks down completely. People were trying to cling to the sides of buses and it could have easily turned violent. You can't even put the sauce meant for your dumplings on your rice or meat or whatever without someone freaking out. And what do you mean "no ham"? We make it with ham. It comes with ham. People only have it that way. There is no deviation.

While all of this mind-bogglingly oppressive structure makes for a very safe and usually efficient society capable of rapid and sustained economic growth, it leaves people woefully unprepared for any type of unexpected situation that requires adaptive cognitive thought, much less an actual disaster.

The second part to this ongoing saga is the incredibly shameful series of blunders, lies and delays that have been the government's attempt at a response, which have hindered rescue (er, recovery) efforts severely. Maybe not quite as severely as over 500 divers who can't manage to screw in a lightbulb on a submerged vessel, but let's not revisit that embarrassment. 

First of all, the government sent a text to the family members telling them that all the students had been rescued, possibly after those who actually had been were counted twice. I mean, wow. "Sorry about that, your son's actually drowning, trapped in a frigid tomb, ignore that last one". You just can't do that. The best PR consulting firm in the world couldn't undo something like that.

Secondly, the sheer number of people on the scene has made things extremely confusing, surprisingly chaotic and disorganised, and no one's sure exactly why all of this has been taking so long. There was even some old dude in goggles and swim trunks trying to dive in and search for his son who had to be held back by police. This would simply never happen in another developed country. There's protocol for this sort of thing that isn't seriously hampered by ineffective communication, bureaucracy, misinformation or petty bickering. A heavy lift ship they were going to bring in (now I'm reading that it's actually a series of ships with huge cranes on them) to move the ferry was delayed an entire day - and didn't arrive until 2 days after the Sewol sank - because different organisations spent 12 hours arguing over who was going to pay for it. It's just one of those things you do immediately without thinking, because it's what needs to be done. Lives hanging in the balance, clock ticking and that. You worry about who's going to foot the bill and how you're going to allocate, borrow or transfer the funds later, once everyone's been treated for shock and hypothermia and told their harrowing story on the evening news.

The deeply shameful and ineffective rescue efforts have resulted in comparisons with the Titanic. Both ships hit something and sank very quickly after an initial period of confusion where everything kind of seemed okay; everyone panicked and the lifeboats weren't used effectively, in part because both groups of passengers missed the evacuation drill; and the survival rates are similar. 31.6% of the Titanic's passengers survived, and so far, 37.6% of those on the Sewol have. I heard that the Korean source that made the comparison then added that the current state of their society and technology is, therefore, around the same level of the West 100+ years ago. 
This doesn't seem like a fair comparison, but when you also take into account that the Titanic was on its maiden voyage in exponentially deeper water at a time when navigation was nowhere near the point it's at now and that there had never been another ship like it before... Ehhh, it starts to sound kind of fair. The Sewol was sailing in fair, iceberg-less weather in broad daylight along an extremely well-traveled maritime route on Wednesday. The people on the Titanic didn't have realtime updates, GPS, free wifi or the opportunity to Kakao their parents as they were treading water.

My second major criticism, then, is the flagrant and seemingly paradoxical disregard for safety protocol these people have. I used to work in the insurance claims department of a construction company, so you can imagine the OSHA violations I start cataloging whenever I see an open trench with no barricades or shoring, men openly drinking beer and liquor on the job, and whenever I nearly get hit by a small backhoe in an unmarked construction zone that casually spills onto an adjacent road with traffic coming around the corner at full speed, which has happened twice. 
Girls ride sidesaddle on scooters with no helmets. Delivery bikes fly down busy sidewalks laden with long, awkward metal pipes that aren't properly secured. Once when I was walking to work last year a small flatbed truck carrying milk made a sharp, unsafe lane change to avoid rear-ending another car and a bunch of the crates full of milk bottles flew off and nearly hit me, and were left dramatically strewn about the road and sidewalk as the driver sped off. 
At a popular tourist spot called Nami Island, Si and I watched some unattended young boys on Razor scooters racing around open and similarly unattended glass-blowing furnaces. Why would you even leave the furnace doors open like that? The guy who was shaping the glass didn't even wear gloves; he just used thick, soaked layers of newspaper in his bare hands. It goes on and on. Why is it okay to feed or carry your ten year-old in public like an infant but leave them at home alone as young as three? How do you justify hovering over a child like an incredibly overbearing, obsessive helicopter and then completely failing to prepare them for life by arming them with common sense?

If you combine this blase attitude toward safety with a mindless command structure superimposed over a human's natural intuitive thought process, you're going to get accidents like this. As shocked and ashamed as people are, it's not really that surprising. 
Wake the fuck up, Korea.

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