South Korea Grapples With Implications of Ferry Tragedy

The following article originally appeared in The Diplomat.

In the aftermath of one of its worst-ever maritime disasters, South Korea has found itself grappling with the question of how a modern ferry came to capsize in calm waters with the loss of 302 passengers, most of them high school students.

Alongside the expected grief and anger, the sinking of the Sewol on April 16 has also fuelled introspection about arguably the crowning achievement of the country’s modern history: its rapid rise from poverty to prosperity.

From the 1960s up until the 1980s, successive dictatorial governments implemented massive infrastructure projects and ambitious manufacturing targets at lightning speed. There followed an almost uninterrupted period of unprecedented economic growth. The “ppalli ppalli” (hurry, hurry) mentality exemplified by former dictator Park Chung-hee is considered to have been an indispensable ingredient in the “Miracle on the Han.”

But in the wake of the tragedy, newspaper editorials and commentators have asked if one cost of such a dramatic economic rise has been a society with a pervasive disregard for public safety.

In the Yeongnam Ilbo, a regional newspaper based in the country’s fourth-largest city Daegu, one column described the Sewol disaster as “the worst sort of outrageous drama” created by a culture of “daechung daechung,” translated loosely as “cutting corners.”

Yoon Cheol-hee, the paper’s social affairs editor, wrote that the shame and regret felt over the tragedy must never be forgotten so that South Korea can “break free from being an underdeveloped country in terms of safety.”

An editorial for the Jeju Ilbo, headquartered on the island the ill-fated ferry had been traveling to, asked if the “ppalli ppalli” mentality was to blame for the disaster, warning that economic development alone cannot create an “advanced country.”

“The value we had was the value of efficiency: given the time, and given the cost, and how fast and how cost-efficiently you achieve the goal. So that… was compelling energy we had, which was used to promote economic growth,” Moon M. Jae, a professor at the Department of Public Administration at Yonsei University in Seoul, told The Diplomat. “I think the downside to that mode is actually the effectiveness in safety and those values that were a little bit lacking.”

In a strongly nationalistic country where tragedy and celebration alike are often seen to reflect the entire nation, the latest disaster has repeatedly been discussed in the same breath as previous calamities, many of them non-maritime, such as the collapse of a shopping mall in 1995 and a subway arson attack in 2003, both of which killed hundreds. As appears to be the case with the Sewol, incompetence and malpractice were features of both disasters.

Kim Chan-o, a professor at the Department of Safety Engineering at Seoul National University of Science and Technology, is one of many who believe the country’s rapid development has had negative consequences for safety right across society.

“As well as in the areas of construction and transportation, in all the other social areas, the negative effect exists now,” said Kim.

“Although the safety standards have many problems, I think the biggest problem is the safety awareness of the people, and that officials do not keep safety standards.”

South Korea lags other developed countries in a number of areas of public safety, according to statistics. The country had the highest death rate for pedestrians in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2012, and the highest number of road fatalities per 1 billion vehiclekilometers in the previous year.

In its 2014 report on crime and safety in South Korea, the Overseas Security Advisory Council under the U.S. Department of State advised that, “vehicles frequently do not yield to pedestrians in marked crosswalks,” and that “it is common for drivers to watch live TV through their GPS devices via DMB (digital multimedia broadcasting) technology, a contributing factor in many accidents.”

Periodic work-related deaths at big name conglomerates such as Samsung, meanwhile, have been a recurrent source of controversy. In 2012, the country registered 1,134 fatal injuries in the workplace, not including 730 fatal illnesses. Differences in classification make comparisons across countries difficult, but the U.S., which has a population some six times greater than South Korea, had just 4,383 fatal workplace injuries in the same year.

And in the most recent blow to confidence in the country’s transport network, the government just last week announced that it would sanction Asiana Airlines over an incident in which its pilots continued a flight to Saipan despite engine trouble.

In the case of the Sewol, the list of alleged safety failures is long: the captain and crew failed to properly evacuate the ship; most of the life boats were not operational; and the vessel had been illegally modified and dangerously overloaded.

All 15 members of the crew involved in navigating the vessel, including the captain, have been arrested on various charges related to neglecting their duties. The operator of the ferry, Chonghaejin Marine Co., and its sister firms have come under investigation for alleged financial irregularities. Meanwhile, the Korean Register of Shipping and Korea Shipping Association, two of the main regulatory bodies for maritime safety, are accused of accepting bribes to overlook safety lapses.

“Although many people know what to do for maritime safety, they have not conducted it by themselves because of financial burden and bad habits,” said Hong Seung-kweon, an expert in maritime safety at Korea National University of Transportation in Chungju, about 150 km from Seoul.

The authorities’ response to the disaster has also generated shame and anger, aggravated further by the release Monday of footage of the initial rescue effort by the Coast Guard. In the video, a Coast Guard vessel is shown keeping its distance from the ship, which took nearly two hours to sink completely beneath the sea apart from a small section of the keel. Once onboard, rescue personal failed to enter the vessel to locate survivors.  Responding to the criticism, Coast Guards officials claimed that the severe listing of the ship and safety concerns for its personnel made it impossible to rescue a greater number of passengers despite their best efforts. Just 174 of the more 450 people onboard escaped the ship alive.

Moon, the Yonsei University professor, said the rescue operation, as well as the accident itself, illustrated a general problem with adhering to what on paper are often decent standards.

“Timely action wasn’t taken, and it is not because we didn’t have a disaster management or crisis management system – that system was there – but it didn’t play (out) a way we wanted to see,” he said.

Not all observers, however, agree that problems in maritime safety can be traced to the country’s fast accession to the club of rich nations or any related mentality.

“I can’t agree with their opinion. I think that the rapid economic development could not have led to weak safety standards,” said Hong. “I think that they are making excuses.”

A bigger threat to safety at sea, he said, has been old-fashioned greed.

“A noticeable threat to maritime safety is not to follow the safety rules for economic benefit.”

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The Relevance of the South Korea-US Alliance

The following article originally appeared in The Diplomat — John. 

More than 60 years old, the South Korea-U.S. military alliance has weathered monumental change on the divided Korean Peninsula. Since the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty at the close of the Korean War in 1953, South Korea has transformed from a poor authoritarian state to a prosperous democracy. The once poorer sibling’s economy now dwarfs that of neighboring North Korea, its primary security concern. Further afar, the Cold War has been consigned to history. Meanwhile, China has entered the international consciousness as a burgeoning superpower.

Yet, fundamentally, the alliance remains little changed. South Korea’s defense continues to be the responsibility of the U.S., which retains wartime control over the local military and stations close to 30,000 troops on Korean soil. A plan to transfer wartime control to South Korea, first agreed upon in 2006, has been delayed repeatedly, most recently to 2015 – a date that itself looks in doubt due to trepidation from the conservative government in Seoul.

Despite the now vast development gap between the Koreas, both Washington and Seoul insist their partnership remains essential. Marking its 60th anniversary last May, a joint statement described the relationship as an “anchor for stability, security, and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula, in the Asia-Pacific region, and increasingly around the world.”

Kwon Kih-yeon, foreign communications officer at South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, told The Diplomat of the continuing importance of the alliance. “Going beyond the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula, the two countries, through the alliance, are currently fostering the advance of a comprehensive 21st century strategy that is to the benefit of the Asia-Pacific region and international law.”

Bolstering the case for the status quo have been pessimistic assessments by defense officials and analysts of how the South would fare in a one-on-one conflict with the North. Speaking at a parliamentary audit last November, Cho Bo-geun, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, claimed that Seoul would likely lose such a war.

A study in 2011 by the Korea Economic Research Institute raised questions even about the security of South Korea with U.S. support, claiming that “it would not be entirely wrong to say North Korea’s military strength is stronger,” while adding that the U.S. and South would ultimately prevail.

Yang Uk, a research fellow at private think tank Korea Security and Defense Forum, said that while possessing a strong conventional military, South Korea continues to lack the kind of intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities provided by the U.S.

“If the Korean armed forces is a boxer, we have a strong punch but we don’t have any good eyes, or good movement, like the U.S. What we need is we have to train that much harder,” Yang, who describes the alliance as “crucial,” said.

“…The crucial problem of the Korean armed forces today is their intelligence, surveillance and targeting.”

But even with vastly improved intelligence and surveillance, Seoul would still lack the North’s ace in the hole: nuclear arms. Part of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and a signatory to several non-proliferation agreements, South Korea is prohibited from developing its own nuclear deterrent.

“Regarding the rationale for U.S. defense capabilities augmentation to South Korea, I would answer that North’s nuclear threat is the primary reason why both Washington and Seoul have no disagreement on maintaining the robust alliance,” said Nam Chang-hee, an expert in Northeast Asia relations at Inha University in Incheon, about 30 kilometers west of Seoul. “Should the U.S. leave Korea, Seoul has no other choice but going nuclear, which, however, harms its own long-term security interest by further unleashing proliferation in the region.”

For segments of Korea’s political left, however, the calculation isn’t how necessary the alliance is, but how harmful. Rather than a force for peace and stability, they see a source of tensions and, ultimately, an obstacle to the eventual reunification of the country.

“The current Korea and U.S. alliance only reinforces the partition and confrontation structure between the two Koreas, and hinders the establishment of a peace structure,” said Oh Mi-jung, secretary general for Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea, a local civic group.

Oh considers the alliance itself to be a violation of the 1953 armistice agreement between the two Koreas, noting, for instance, that the U.S. disregarded a provision prohibiting the deployment of new weaponry on the peninsula, just a few years after its signing. The defense pact, agues Oh, is incompatible with a peace treaty.

“Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea takes the view that the long-held hostile relationship between the U.S .and North Korea has to be eased for the establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. Aiming for this, we insist on the official end of the Korean War and the signing of a peace treaty of mutual nonaggression.”

In the U.S., other analysts question the alliance, too, albeit from a very different perspective – that of the non-interventionist right. Their primary concerns are cost and whether the partnership actually serves U.S. interests.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based based Cato Institute, is one such observer who objects to the United States’ military subsidization of South Korea. He believes Seoul is capable of defending itself.

“I think it would have to make some adjustments in its current force structure and spending, but there’s no reason to believe that South Korea, with a much larger economy and population, is not capable of dealing with North Korea,” said Bandow. “The North is quite decrepit, in terms of its economy and infrastructure, as well as in terms of its reserve capacity.”

Bandow accepts that there was a legitimate argument for defending South Korea after the Korean War at a time of communist expansion, but sees no convincing rationale today. Instead, he sees the alliance as symptomatic of a world in which “everyone wants America to defend it.”

The perception that the U.S. is unfairly burdened with being the world’s watchman could have profound implications for the future of the alliance, especially if such weariness were to reach critical mass among the American public. U.S. government budget constraints, too, raise questions about the sustainability of the U.S. commitment to South Korea, despite a massive plan currently under way to modernize its installations in the country.

Bandow pointed to these two factors as spelling uncertainly for the future of U.S. involvement in the South’s national defense.

“To the extent that Americans realize that they have to make some choices — and those choices include, ‘How much do you spend on the military versus social security, Medicare, Medicaid?’ – my guess is that the American population is more likely to say ‘let our wealthy allies do more, we should do less.’ And that will certainly apply to South Korea.”

He added that, in the face of diminishing resources, the Obama administration’s much-vaunted “Asia pivot” may ultimately mean nothing more than the region being less affected by an inevitable reduction in military presence worldwide.

But neither South Korea nor the U.S. has given any indication of countenancing a future where Korea goes it alone. Just last October, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel insisted that looming defense cuts would not lead to a reduction in the U.S. troop presence here.

Asked if the government could envisage a time when South Korea would not lean on U.S. military support, the Defense Ministry’s Kwon said that the current alliance would not only be maintained in the future, but “elevated.”

“Even the U.S . – which possesses the world’s strongest military – cooperates with European countries, Britain, Japan , Australia, and us (South Korea) to receive protection from influences that threaten national security,” said Kwon. “In this sort of context, as an alliance, South Korea will continuously have mutual cooperation with the U.S. in the future, too.”

“The Avengers” won’t transform Korea’s image – but it’s part of the process

The following op-ed was originally written for translation for Newsweek Korea. — John.

By John Power

The Korean media has been desperate to get the inside scoop on the sequel to “The Avengers” ever since it was announced that a portion of the film would be shot in Seoul. The excitement no doubt partly stems from Seoul having been overlooked by Hollywood for so long in comparison to Asian cities such as Tokyo and Hong Kong. In fact, apart from fleeting scenes in a handful of films, Seoul has gone virtually unrepresented by the world’s entertainment capital.  That is a shame. Seoul is one of the most significant and vibrant cities in Asia and is long past due the Hollywood treatment.

That the sequel to the third-highest grossing film of all time is filming in Korea is obviously news. But the anticipation from media and citizens alike is undoubtedly also a function of Korea’s seemingly insatiable desire for international recognition. Much of the media coverage has framed the production in terms of how it will promote the Korean brand. The government has duly made impressive predictions of the film’s positive impact on tourism and investment. At minimum, it will give many Western audiences a concrete image of modern Seoul for the first time.

But already it appears as if expectations may be inflated beyond all reasonable levels. The desperate need of Korean officialdom for foreign approval means that the film must not merely depict Seoul, but transform its image around the world. At times, one has gotten the sense that officials interested in the production see “Avengers: Age of Ultron” less as a profit-seeking slice of entertainment about superheroes than an advertisement for Korea itself.

In the most obvious example of this mindset, the KTO and several film and investment-related agencies signed a memorandum of understanding  with Marvel Studios last month in which the film studio agreed to “portray Korea as a high-tech, modern country and shall avoid portraying the Republic of Korea in any negative manner.”

That Seoul would be depicted negatively was apparently more than an abstract concern for government officials. One Culture Ministry official, quoted in The Korea Herald, recently complained that, “In foreign movies, Korea is either shown as a backward place or given a negative portrayal.”

He also said that the prospect of how Seoul would be portrayed in such an explosion-heavy action film had initially worried him.

With such sensitivities in play, it is worth asking just what is meant by “any negative manner” as stipulated in the agreement.  Would that include the destruction of landmarks, practically obligatory in such films, or the fleeting inclusion of a homeless person?

In reality, Seoul is powerless to control how it is perceived in a Hollywood blockbuster. An MOU is little more than a formalized gentleman’s agreement; it is not legally binding. There is no way to seek recourse should Seoul feel slighted by the eventual product.

Moreover, it strains credulity that Seoul would have denied Marvel without such an agreement, or that that the studio would alter the plot of a multi-hundred-million-dollar production to placate local concerns.

In effect, it was a very public sop to the national inferiority complex.

There have been many other examples of the high hopes being placed on the impact of the film. Park Young-gyu, the head of public relations at the Korea Tourism Organization, was recently quoted in The Korea Herald as saying the film could make Seoul as recognizable to foreigners as Tokyo and Shanghai. This would be an astounding accomplishment for a single work of cinema, most of which is to be set outside of Korea.

Of course, it is in the DNA of public officials to set lofty targets and make grand pronouncements. That is a function of their nature, elsewhere as well as in Korea. But projecting a country’s hopes for international recognition onto a single film is bound to end in disappointment.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is not likely to utterly transform Korea’s image abroad. The average Briton will continue to first think of Tokyo rather than Seoul at the sound of “Asia.” The average Spaniard will remain more acquainted with chow mein than jjim ddak.

But so what?

Korea is nothing like the small, insignificant country many Koreans imagine it to be. It is the 13th largest economy in the world, with an ever-growing cultural clout to match its considerable political and economic status.

Korea will continue to expand its influence overseas and seize the interest of foreigners. But it will do so primarily through the natural interactions of people in an ever more globalized world, not by government diktats and campaigns that betray deep insecurity.

The sequel to “The Avengers” will be just one more part of that inevitable process. And a whole lot of fun, too.