1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Family members of missing passengers who were on the South Korean Sewol ferry, which has sunk, look at the site of the accident in the sea off Jindo April 17, 2014. Rescuers fought rising winds and waves on Thursday as they searched for hundreds of people, mostly teenage schoolchildren, still missing after the South Korean ferry capsized more than 24 hours ago.
Image: Reuters

A troubled nation

Esther Felden / gd
May 15, 2014

Grief, anger and nagging questions: The Sewol ferry disaster remains the main discussion topic in South Korea one month after the vessel sank. The tragedy has had a strong impact on the East Asian nation.


"Can South Korea change after Sewol? Hopefully," says a tweet written one month after the ferry disaster. The short text gets the core of an issue that has been preoccupying many South Koreans ever since, as it calls into question no less than the national identity and country's decades-old obsession with "growth at all costs." But it also begs the nagging question of whether this obsession is to blame for the events of April 16, 2014.

On that day, the Sewol ferry, carrying 476 people, was sailing from Incheon to Jeju Island when it sank. Only 172 people survived, with many others trapped inside the ship as it went down. Of those on board, 325 were children from a high school on an organized trip.

Recovery operations are still underway off the country's southwest coast as many passengers are still unaccounted for. But the initial glimmer of hope is gone. The desperation felt by the victims' families has now turned into anger directed at the South Korean government and authorities.

Park Geun-hye Trauer um Opfer des Fährunglücks
President Park Geun-Hye has been strongly criticized for her handling of the disasterImage: Reuters

The survivors demand answers. They want to know why it took so long for rescue aid to arrive and they demand that those responsible be brought to justice. These are the reasons why dozens of parents of high school students have been protesting in Seoul, demanding a meeting with President Park Geun-Hye.

Who is responsible?

It took almost two weeks for Park to apologize to the public for the government's poor initial response. Shortly before, Seoul's reaction to the tragedy had cost Prime Minister Chung Hon Won his job. Moreover, not only was the head of the shipping company arrested, but prosecutors also indicted all surviving 15 crew members of the Sewol, four of them, including the captain, on homicide charges. They are accused of having failed to carry out their duties to protect passengers in need. If convicted, those charged with homicide could face the death penalty, according to the country's Supreme Court.

But all this doesn't seem enough to calm the usually self-disciplined South Koreans. A month after the tragedy, the country is still struggling to come to terms with what happened, wrote South Korean writer Kim Young-Ha in a op-ed for The New York Times. "To outsiders, the Sewol disaster may seem like another tragedy that we will inevitably overcome. But here in South Korea, it feels like the country may never be the same again. It has traumatized our national psyche and undercut our self-image," says Kim. "Many South Koreans have begun to wonder if the unfettered growth - and the lax government regulation that accompanied it - has come at too high a price," the novelist added.

Kim Han Sik Fähre Fährunglück Südkorea Chef Reederei
The head of the ferry company, Kim Han-Sik, was arrested on suspicions that improper stowage and overloading of cargo might have contributed to the accidentImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

In a relatively short period of time, the East Asian country has experienced unparalleled economic growth. Within a few centuries, South Korea has managed to transform itself from an underdeveloped war-stricken country to an industrial powerhouse. South Korea is now a member of the G20, and its Gross Domestic Product was worth over 1,100 billion USD in 2012.

But the breathtaking pace of this growth has also taken place at the expense of safety, with several similar disasters being registered over the past decades. In 1993 for instance, a total of 292 people died in the country's the worst-ever ferry disaster. More than 500 people were killed just two years later when a shopping center collapsed.

Reassessing values

Lee Eun-Jeung, Korea expert at the Free University Berlin, has a similar view. The professor of Korean Studies says she has identified a new trend in the country since the disaster: "Doubts have emerged about the South Korean formula for success and this is unprecedented," Lee told DW. The expert says she believes the children who went down with the ferry didn't die in vain.

Many South Koreans are now troubled by the realization that their society has been guided by the idea that success is worth more than a human life, Lee explains. "Adults have a sense of guilt vis-à-vis the younger generations - because we ourselves created this system which has now affected children," she added.

The disaster has plunged South Korea into an identity crisis, says Kim. "We are awash in self-reflection. Has all of our progress been a facade? Are we, in fact, an advanced country?" Norbert Eschborn, director of the Korea office of the German foundation Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung speaks in this context of a period of "soul-searching" in South Korea.

A participant looks at a funeral streamer bearing a message for victims of the capsized passenger ship Sewol, before a lotus lantern parade to celebrate the upcoming birthday of Buddha and to commemorate the victims, in Seoul April 26, 2014. The Sewol ferry sank on April 16 on a routine trip south from the port of Incheon to the traditional holiday island of Jeju.
Analysts say the tragedy has had a strong impact on South KoreansImage: Reuters

Rampant corruption

A problem affecting almost all aspects of South Korean life is nepotism. The county has a long tradition of close ties between business and politics. "This is well-known, until now, politicians and business people had managed to avoid big scandals," says Lee Eun-Jeung. But the sinking of the Sewol cast a shadow on the present conditions. For instance, it is of all things the organization lobbying for the shipping companies, the Korea Shipping association, which is in charge of both licensing ships and conducting quality and safety checks.

Over the course of an official probe launched after the Sewol disaster, it became increasingly clear that the ferry owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co., had violated safety regulations. Investigators suspect that the ship inevitably capsized because it was overloaded and had undergone several previous alterations. On Monday, May 12, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries decided to take action and revoke the operating license of the shipping company for the Incheon-Jeju route.

The role of the media

Lee Eun-Jeung is of the view that the media have also played an important part in this incident. She argues that South Korean media outlets are divided and that for instance, public broadcasters only depict the views of the government. "Investigative journalism simply doesn't take place there. Statements critical of the government are simply not broadcast."

Although independent journalists did write critical analyses on the tragedy, there was almost an immediate backlash from public broadcasters which, for instance, sought to demonize the ship owner or link him to a sect, Lee says. "As long as the media keep playing this game, there will be no fundamental changes," she added.

"As time goes by, the memory of the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry will fade out of the minds of most Koreans," says an op-ed published on May 13 in The Korea Times. "Never so for bereaved family members, whose pain and sorrow could deepen with the passage of time," writes the author, adding that it is the task of the rest of society to give them support. "The whole nation has the responsibility for sharing the surviving families' sadness and frustration from this tragedy caused by the failure of the entire social system."

The author's assessment of President's Park handling of the disaster is particularly harsh: "People are criticizing President Park because she is the captain of a ship called the Republic of Korea, and many behaviors of Park and her government reminds them of the incompetent and irresponsible captain and the crew of the ill-fated ferry."

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section Related topics

Related topics

Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

A Russian T-72 tank firing the vehicle's main cannon in Ukraine

Ukraine updates: Kyiv warns of Russian anniversary offensive

Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage