[The Chrtian Science Monitor] Why South Koreans are skeptical over mysterious death of fugitive ferry owner

The following article was originally published in The Christian Science Monitor. — John 

South Korean police ended an unprecedented manhunt Tuesday without a live suspect, but with what they said was the body of the wealthy businessman wanted for months over the Sewol ferry disaster.

The answer to the mystery of Yoo Byung-eun’s whereabouts might have been expected to bring a measure of closure to a nation gripped by anger, disillusionment, and grief. Mr. Yoo is the alleged owner of the ferry that sank on April 16 with the loss of nearly 300 people, mostly high school students. Instead, the body’s identification has unleashed skepticism and full-blown conspiracy theories from a public whose faith in public institutions was badly shaken by the disaster.

Police told local media Tuesday that the heavily decomposed body of Yoo, who had eluded arrest since May, had been identified through DNA and fingerprint testing after it was first discovered in a plum field on June 12 in Suncheon, some 250 miles south of Seoul. Local reports suggested that the body had been initially mistaken for a homeless person. They also said police did not suspect foul play in Yoo’s death.

Some South Koreans saw the news of the body’s discovery as an attempt to direct attention away from a recent government bill to allow hospitals engage in greater profit-making activities, a controversial move in a country with a system of universal health insurance.

“They didn’t identify the body in a timely manner despite finding it weeks ago. Then, they suddenly presented the finding at this important time,” says Song Yu-jin, an office worker in Seoul.

Political consequences 

The drawn-out manhunt had been a growing source of embarrassment for President Park Geun-hye, whose reputation took a hit after an accident that, together with the rescue efforts, were seen as a national shame. Her Gallup poll approval rating hit a record low of 40 percent in early July, after two failed attempts to replace her prime minister.

“I think the government as a whole, the public sector as a whole, is losing the trust of people, especially since the Sewol accident this spring,” says Jung Yong-duck, a professor emeritus at Seoul National University.

Conspiracy theories about major events are not uncommon in South Korea. The sinking of the South Korean navy ship Cheonan in 2010 sparked speculation of a government cover-up despite an international investigation concluding that a North Korean torpedo had sunk the vessel.

Yoo allegedly controlled Cheonghaejin Marine Corp., the company which owned the ferry, and was the co-founder of the evangelical Salvation Sect. The authorities’ handling of his body has provided further ammunition for skeptics. While police told local media they had handed over the body to the National Forensic Service shortly after it was discovered, citizens and media questioned the delay in confirming its identity and whether the police and prosecution had properly shared information.

“In this case, we have seen a failure of cooperation among government institutions, between the police department and the prosecutors’ office. They have been competing with each other to get investigative rights, especially the police department wants to have some sort of investigation right,” says Yang Seung-ham, a professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul, referencing a long drawn-out dispute between police and prosecutors.

While most Koreans will believe the official narrative of Yoo’s death, Mr. Yang says, the government still suffers from a trust deficit over its handling of the Sewol disaster.

“They have to say the truth about this case,” he says. “Some people must have to take their responsibility and then the government, the presidential office, must show some sort of communication with the public about the malfunctioning government system.”

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The crumbling myth of Korean innocence about racism

The following op-ed was originally written for translation into Korean for Newsweek Korea. The Kookmin Ilbo later quoted part of the column in a story published on Sept. 11, 2014 .

Foreigners living in Korea are prone to forget just how much of a bubble they live in. What exercises Americans, Canadians and Brits away from home may be of little or no interest to Koreans.

So it’s been with a recent skit on the hugely popular Gag Concert that many expatriates have decried as demeaning to Africans and black people generally.

In the sketch, Korean comedienne Heo An-na dons full-body black makeup, over-sized fake teeth and a leopard-print loincloth to play an African tribeswoman in a tumultuous relationship with a Korean man.

Completing the image of a savage African, Heo’s character at one point becomes so emotional that she resorts to animalistic grunting and beating her chest.

A video of the sketch soon spread among resident foreigners on SNS, sparking both anger and dismay. Many wondered out loud how the state broadcaster in such an ostensibly modern country could air such racially offensive material. Their outrage in particular focused on the use of “blackface,” referring to the use of makeup to imitate black people, which has become largely taboo in the United States in particular due to its association with the mistreatment of black Americans.

But what was the reaction in the Korean media and webosphere? Silence. This writer could not find a single article, blog post or comment thread even acknowledging that such race-based mockery might be controversial, never mind objectionable.

Whenever such examples of Koreans apparently lacking racial sensitivity arise, the common justification, made by both locals and many foreigners, is that Koreans either mean no harm or don’t know any better. Indeed, while many foreigners attacked the Gag Concert skit, lots of others equivocated that Korea does not share the same racial history as the U.S. or other Western countries, or that most Koreans don’t know racial stereotypes are offensive, having been only so recently exposed to foreigners.

The implicit suggestion is that Koreans can’t be held to the same standards as Westerners because, unlike Westerners, their intentions are most likely benign. The idea that Koreans are a particularly innocent and moral people is held with pride by some Koreans, and all too often indulged by foreigners, some of whom are likely to squirm at the thought of judging people of a different race and culture.

Recently, on a trip to Busan, I had an alcohol-fuelled conversation with a group of four 20-something Koreans that revealed this mash of myopia and a sense of moral superiority. Without exception, each insisted that there is little racism in Korea. Not only that, they said, racism is much worse in Western countries. I challenged the first claim, listing various examples of racism and xenophobia I’d witnessed personally, as well as the experiences of other foreigners documented in the media and elsewhere. To the second point, I said that trumpeting a supposed lack of racism in a country with so few foreigners was almost meaningless because a large number of racist incidents would first require a relatively large number of foreigners. It would be like a boss congratulating himself on the lack of sexism in an office with no female employees.

The special pleading and excuse-making made by, and on behalf of, Koreans might be understandable if Korea were simply a politically incorrect place that slaughtered sacred cows without prejudice.

Even if one ultimately objects to such an environment, there is at least an appealing consistency and rebellious mischievousness in declaring that humor has no limits, even when it comes to race. After all, lots of great humor has offended somebody, somewhere.

But Korea is not such a place. Korean society, media and officialdom often express outrage over perceived slights against their country and people.

And it goes beyond historical grievances and territorial disputes with Japan. In fact, the Korean media has demonstrated plenty of familiarity with the pitfalls of racial caricatures and stereotypes – that is, when it has been Koreans who have been the victims. When, in 2012, a foreign Hollister model on assignment in Korea uploaded a photo of himself making a squinty-eyed pose to appear East Asian, it generated dozens of articles in the local media and outraged comment online. Just this May, Jorge Cantu, a third baseman for the Doosan Bears from Mexico, sparked a flurry of critical media coverage when he retweeted an image joking about how East Asians supposedly all look alike. During the World Cup, meanwhile, one Seoul newspaper reported that Russian fans had mocked Koreans by pretending to have slanted eyes during the game between the two countries. Earlier this month, a social media-driven news site reported that K-pop star G-Dragon had been heckled with the insult “ching chong” by a member of the public outside a fashion event in Paris.

The examples go on and on. Simply put, pleading ignorance about racial sensitivity looks ever more dishonest and self-serving.

As an outsider, it isn’t long before you become aware of the deep sense of victim hood rooted in Korea’s national character, most often manifest in dealings with larger and more powerful countries, be it in diplomacy, business or sports. Crucially, being a victim means never having to admit fault. Perhaps this is why Africans can be mocked on national television without a whisper of protest, while jokes at the expense of Koreans cause controversy.

The choice for Korean society, then, seems clear: embrace a modest degree of racial sensitivity, or don’t and duly renounce the right to complain when Koreans become the butt of jokes themselves.