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Required Reading for the Post-Candlelight Era

Challenges of Modernization and Governance in South Korea: The Sinking of the Sewol and Its Causes. Edited by Jae-Jung Suh and Mikyoung Kim. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Review by Haeyoung Kim | December 28, 2017

South Korean President Moon Jae-in won in a landslide election last spring after millions of people took to the streets to call for the resignation of former President Park Geun-hye. The months-long candlelight rallies that lead to President Park’s impeachment and ushered in a liberal Democratic Party leader to head the state were protests to oust not just a president, but also a dysfunctional political and economic system with a callous disregard for the health and safety of its citizenry. What remains to be seen is whether this young administration will meet the demands voiced by the candlelight revolution and develop policy reforms that will radically restructure the political and economic landscape of South Korea.

As the new Moon administration continues to formulate its domestic and foreign policy strategies, the important collection of essays in the edited volume Challenges of Modernization and Governance in South Korea: The Sinking of the Sewol and Its Causes come at an opportune time. The book provides the sorely needed analysis to make sense of the tragic Sewol Ferry disaster that took place on April 16, 2014, when the passenger ship capsized and killed 304 of the 476 on board. Of the victims, 250 were high school students. Adding to the horrific death toll was the disorganized and incompetent response by government officials and public authorities, and the endemic corruption and reckless greed revealed in the aftermath. The contributing authors to this volume engage with the ongoing dialogue on the structural challenges of the modern political and economic system in South Korea, which the sinking of the Sewol laid bare.

Beginning with a February 2015 roundtable discussion held at the International Studies Association conference held in New Orleans, this edited volume represents a cumulative effort to bring attention to the assorted conditions that enabled the Sewol Ferry to sink and provoked the nationwide crisis. In so doing, the contributing authors present varied framings that critically question and pointedly analyze the nature of South Korea’s compressed modernization and the concomitant maladies endemic to its system. What emerges from this book is a note of caution, urging readers in general and South Koreans in particular to deeply consider the tremendous implications of disregarding or dismissing the hazardous societal consequences to unbridled economic growth.

The volume opens with an introductory chapter by one of the editors, Jae-Jung Suh. While situating each chapter in context, Suh also offers weighty reflections on South Korea’s compressed process of modernization, subsequent neoliberalization, and their attendant complications. He concludes that the national crisis incited by the Sewol disaster exposed the tensions inherent to South Korea’s rapid economic and political development, where a singular focus on generating economic growth imposed vulnerabilities upon South Korean society while also precluding a national self-reflexivity. The introduction presents an essential theoretical backdrop to help locate how each chapter contends with the distorted and disproportionate development of Korea’s compressed modernization. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of this national crisis, while all address how the national crisis impacted the South Korean national psyche and body politic.

The contributions by Yoonkyung Lee (Chapter 2) and Su-Dol Kang (Chapter 3) investigate the Sewol crisis by addressing the social impact of South Korea’s neoliberal structural reforms. Lee considers the Sewol crisis not as an incompatible or random anomaly in South Korea’s modern history, but as a predictable byproduct of South Korea’s neoliberal deregulation and the state’s collusion with private enterprise. Examining public safety hazards caused by neoliberal policies and the extraction of the state from the provisioning of public safety regulations and oversight, Lee argues that the Sewol disaster is inextricably linked to South Korea’s neoliberal turn, which led to an increasing prioritization of private profits over public safety.

Lee cites the deregulation of the shipping industry initiated by South Korea’s neoliberal transformation as the first failed line of defense that led to the Sewol accident. Beginning in the early 90s during the Kim Young-sam administration and gaining relentless traction with South Korea’s subsequent presidencies, the neoliberal drive for economic and political liberalization led to ordinances in the shipping industry that extended the age limit of passenger ships from 20 years to 30, relaxed guidelines concerning inspections, extended freight loading and freight limits, and modified the legal obligations of shippers if involved in an accident. As noted by Lee, the neoliberal relaxing of regulations is what allowed for a decrepit, overloaded, and structurally unstable ferry to depart from port. Further, decades of neoliberal policy shifts led to an increased privatization of rescue missions from public institutions to private companies. During the Sewol accident, the private company Undine Marine Industries was contracted to have exclusive rescue mission rights, prohibiting other vessels and lifesaving units that were at the ready from assisting in the rescue operation. Market forces and business profit interests, according to Lee, overrode public safety, and the lives of innocent victims served as collateral damage.

The flexible neoliberal labor market added to the catastrophe by allowing businesses, including the shipping industry, to treat labor as disposable and replaceable commodities rather than human capital in need of long-term investment. Shipping companies have sought to increase their bottom line by replacing regular employees with less-than-adequately trained temporary non-regular workers who earn roughly half that of a regular worker and are denied basic benefits. On April 16, the day of the Sewol accident, nearly half of the crew operating the Sewol ferry consisted of non-regular contracted workers, including the captain. In an industry where safety is an essential part of daily operations, the negligence toward safety education undoubtedly created a perilous public safety hazard as employees were inadequately trained and lacked incentives to be wholly committed to work-related obligations. Indeed, while Lee recognizes the captain and crew’s moral failings as they neglected basic professional obligations, abandoned ship, and deserted the passengers, the author nonetheless argues that their misconduct must be viewed in the context of their contingent labor status.

Su-Dol Kang (Chapter 3) considers the Sewol disaster through the lens of addictive organization theory to reveal the structural dysfunctions of Korean society that have accumulated in the last 50 years in a drive for and addiction to economic growth. Addictive organizations, according to Kang, are those that exhibit behavioral traits similar to those of an addict, including denying, lying, controlling, manipulating, and forgetting. Kang argues that every aspect of contemporary South Korean society lays victim to an addictive system, leading to institutionalized social irresponsibility and tragic accidents like the Sewol disaster. In direct conversation with Lee’s claim of the predictability of the Sewol disaster in Chapter 2, Kang notes that disasters like the Sewol accident are bound to happen given South Korea’s addictive system.

Kang catalogs a litany of actions and behaviors that reflect South Korea’s unhealthy addictive society. For instance, prior to the accident, the government lifted shipping industry safety regulations that interfered with profit-maximization, the Sewol routinely underwent inadequate safety checks, and reports of crewmember emergency training were overstated. In the aftermath of the Sewol sinking, the maritime police lied to the press about the size of the rescue operation, the press released false reports about the number of passengers rescued, and authorities interfered with the accurate disclosure of information. Instructed by their superiors at Chonghaejin, the company that owned the Sewol, staff even manipulated the Sewol cargo book after the fact, concealing the ferry’s overloading out of concern that insurance money could not be collected if overloading were identified to be the cause. Kang also argues that addictive systems shift blame during times of emergency, noting that Chonghaejin staff and executives held the captain and crew culpable while the government strove to quickly settle the case and quiet dissenting voices to evade responsibility. The courts eventually convicted the Sewol captain, the ship’s chief engineer, and charged the 13 surviving crewmembers of various charges. Kang argues that these judicial decisions serve to merely misdirect attention from larger systemic societal dysfunctions and are inadequate in uncovering the truth or reaching justice.

The following three chapters focus on South Korea’s governance structure and role played by the state in South Korea’s neoliberal shift. In Chapter 4, Taehyun Nam argues that the Sewol disaster brought into stark relief the deficiencies in South Korea’s democracy. Nam examines the attitudes and behaviors exhibited by political elites during and after the crisis, and the structural shortcomings in South Korea’s democratic consolidation. President Park and her administration remained silent or routinely misled the public throughout the disaster, revealing the administration’s attitude on democratic principles like accountability and transparency. After the ferry capsized, the government strove to create the impression of a large and orderly rescue operation, egregiously inflating the number of rescuers, helicopters, and vessels engaged in the mission. Further, a governmental body in charge of press and mass communication reportedly created a team to monitor and filter press coverage of the Sewol disaster in order to minimize reports about the government’s mishandling and responsibility. What followed were highly curated reports and a series of theatrical public performances. For instance, Nam makes note of a staged event at a memorial hall in Ansan, the home city of the high school student victims. The televised report presented President Park embracing a solemn-faced elderly woman, who turned out to be unrelated to any victim but someone recruited by presidential aides. Victim family members, rather, shouted at the President in anger and frustration upon her arrival. Another media stunt included an officer who was ordered to wear a diving suit and was subsequently sprayed with water before a media interview.

The government not only censored or sensationalized media reporting, but also repressed civilian critics, threatening the most basic civil liberty of free speech. For instance, the government targeted a schoolteacher who posted online criticism and also artists that illustrated caricatures of the president and her administration. To criticize President Park or her administration was deemed to be a condemnation of the Korean nation, and administration subordinates went so far as to launch a political campaign to protect the president’s reputation. President Park and her administration, according to Nam, repeatedly exhibited attitudes that bore close resemblance to feudal masters, rather than officials elected to serve their constituents in a modern democratic republic. South Korea’s political system grants the president unbridled political authority, and the author argues that the high concentration of power afforded the president is the most considerable defect to South Korea’s democratic consolidation.

Also speaking squarely to Yoonkyung Lee’s analysis in Chapter 2, Jong-sung You and Youn Min Park challenge the notion that neoliberal reforms and various forms of deregulation caused the Sewol accident in Chapter 5. While they recognize Korea’s neoliberalization to have significantly contributed to the tragedy, they instead argue that the Sewol crisis is better explained by understanding how the pre-neoliberal government and regulatory agencies were entangled in an institutionalized web of regulatory capture – a system where regulatory agencies lose autonomy and serve private regulated industry rather than public interests. The government and regulatory agencies, the authors argue, were willfully negligent and unable to establish and enforce effective regulations because they were guided by industry lobby interests as a result of being captured by the ferry industry and the private owner of the Sewol ferry. As a result, regulatory safety checks were fatally violated over the course of the Sewol’s operation.

The authors also determine regulatory capture to be a legacy of state-corporatist arrangements rather than a phenomenon initiated by neoliberal reforms. Introduced during the Park Chung-hee era, collusive relationships between public bureaucrats and private businesses became deeply embedded in every industry. The Sewol tragedy, the authors outline, reveals the long-standing history of institutional appropriation, pointing specifically to parachute appointments and corporatist business associations. The corrupt and collusive practices of public authorities and private industries date back to South Korea’s authoritarian periods, and the legacies of state corporatism played a significant role in institutionalizing regulatory capture in South Korea.

In Chapter 6, Kyung-Sin Park examines the relationship between paternalism and mass disasters. According to Park, independent thinking and autonomous action have been suppressed in South Korea, with an authoritarian culture that paralyzes self-directed thought. Laws that criminalize whistleblowing have been vigorously enforced, indisposing individuals to express government dissent or speak freely about corruption. News broadcasters receive heavy-handed pressure from South Korea’s content regulation authorities, leading to unreliable and inaccurate reporting. The result, Park argues, is a disaster-prone system and a blindsided body politic.

Park also points to the hierarchical social norms that dictated behavior on the day of the accident. The passengers fatally deferred to the “Stay Still” order announced by the captain and crew, who failed to issue an “Abandon Ship” message because their superiors had not instructed them to do so. While the author identifies incompetence and immorality to be the ultimate cause of the disaster, Park also suggests that there were a series of missed opportunities to exercise independent judgment and restore normalcy. Rather, a habitual adherence to conform to a social hierarchy led to a disastrous paralysis.

Chapters 7 through 9 address the ways in which individuals have negotiated and positioned their place in relation to the neoliberal state after the Sewol disaster. Seungsook Moon (Chapter 7) considers education and disciplinary structures in South Korean high schools and the resultant normative subjectivities that are molded. Moon outlines the incongruity between outlined goals of high-school education and the lived experience of daily schooling. While purportedly fostering notions of democracy, human rights, and self-realization, Moon demonstrates that school days are narrowly focused on college entrance. Also, the excessive preoccupation with being admitted to a prestigious university often leads families to dedicate a significant percentage of their household incomes to subsidize commercial cram schools and private tutors. Moon notes that lower-class families also mobilize resources, however limited, to invest in their children’s education, harboring the hope for upward mobility through education. After visiting Danwon High School located in the provincial city of Ansan, a predominately working-class area in Kyonggi Province, Moon notes that the families of the students who drowned during the Sewol disaster also exhibited this aspirational behavior.

The Primary, Middle, and High School Education Ordinance Reform of 2011 instituted dramatic changes to student life. Prior to the reforms, South Korean high schools exhibited militaristic practices to control and guide the daily lives of students, including corporal punishment. School authorities also regulated student appearance and behavior, enforcing meticulous restrictions on hair length and style, clothes, and shoes. The author also notes that basic civil rights were often denied to students; many schools limited student leadership roles to high academic achievers, prohibited participation in extracurricular associations, restricted involvement in political activities, and would threaten expulsion for producing, reading, or circulating “unwholesome” texts. School rules and bodily discipline, the author argues, serve to produce docile, compliant, and useful individuals in the social system. Further, this regulatory mechanism over the body, in turn, produces a conformity to and internalization and acceptance of authority. While the reforms of 2011 improved the human rights of students, the author notes that the form of disciplinary power merely shifted from a physical and brutal one to a more polite Foucauldian pastoral power that governs and guides student conduct and continues to produce docile and compliant subjects.  Moon closes the chapter by reminding the reader that the students who survived the Sewol tragedy were those that disobeyed directives offered by authorities.

In Chapter 8, Hyunok Lee considers the relationship between the state and citizenship by examining how a Vietnamese family affected by the Sewol disaster navigated various political, economic, and cultural boundaries of belonging. Tracing the lived experiences of a Sewol victim’s Vietnamese family members that traveled to South Korea after being notified of the sinking, Lee demonstrates how the Sewol disaster revealed South Korea’s social stratification to be organized by socioeconomic difference and citizenship. Denied equal access to pertinent information, excluded from decision-making processes, and provided differential services and protections, the post-disaster situation exposed the precarious and marginal positionality of naturalized citizens and foreigners in South Korea.

Lee also shows that the Sewol disaster exposed the vulnerability of the global household as an economic unit. The Vietnam-born Sewol victim immigrated to South Korea in 2006 and married a Korean – a union enabling two low-income households in Vietnam and Korea to collectively navigate the global political economy. The international marriage functioned as a survival strategy, allowing for the reproduction of South Korean citizenry while improving the livelihood of the extended family in Vietnam receiving remittances. The Sewol disaster disrupted this economically and emotionally linked transnational family, and revealed their disenfranchisement from the two countries they straddled.

Hyeon Jung Lee chronicles how the bereaved families transformed from passive citizens to resistant subjects in Chapter 9. Outraged by government actions and attitudes after the accident, families began to realize that the state and its officials placed their own interests above those they were elected to serve. Victim families recount the endless stream of lies discharged by government officials about the rescue mission, obfuscating details about the state of affairs and making misleading claims about the families being gold-diggers or pro-North Korean leftists. Victim family members chose to take collective political action by staging sit-in protests, developing a political voice, and standing at the vanguard of the movement to expose the ineptitude of President Park and her administration.

Families were also reportedly consumed by profound guilt and regret after the accident, feeling that they too were complicit in the deaths of their children. Through their traumatic losses, victim parents came to the painful self-reflexive conclusion that their all-consuming preoccupation with materialism and accumulating wealth served to reinforce the corrupt and faulty system that robbed them of their children. Their sharp critique of society and themselves have formed the basis of their enduring struggles to fight against the state and a corrupt system based on greed and lies.

The volume closes with an incisive epilogue by John Lie, who sketches out the critical contours of each chapter while also asking what the sinking of the Sewol may portend for South Korea. Lie contends that the Sewol crisis, while bringing to light the various long-standing political, economic, and social issues that have eroded the country, was a distinctive rupture in South Korea’s contemporary moment. What comes of this shift in collective consciousness, according to Lie, remains to be seen. Yet, the author forewarns that the sinking of the ferry may foretell the sinking of South Korea, and asks who will come to its rescue.

As the above summaries show, each piece in this edited compilation seeks to understand the causes and conditions that led to the Sewol Ferry disaster and the unremitting displays of incompetence and misconduct in the wake of the ferry’s sinking. The volume as a whole shows that the sinking of the Sewol exposed the country’s social and structural ills that have been generated and overlooked through South Korea’s process of modernization. While individual chapters trace how particular socioeconomic or political dysfunctions are not specific to the contemporary period but also linked to South Korea’s earlier authoritarian regimes, the authors could have further contextualized and historicized some of these conditions that may have genealogies that date further back. For instance, South Korea’s compressed development, state corporatism, and state-big business collaborative relations indeed have historical ties to the Japanese colonial period, as South Korea inherited Japan’s model of industrialization. Also, coercive colonial education policies aimed at molding pliable colonial subjects provided a framework for South Korea’s educational system. Finally, what does it mean for the modern South Korean president to act like a monarch or political elites to behave like feudal masters in the context of Korean history? A closer historical examination may reveal just how deeply rooted some of these conditions are.

The book provides an urgent warning, underscoring the unsustainability of the current economic and political system, but the reader is left to wonder how South Korea can correct the societal ills outlined in the chapters and actualize the policy proposals presented by some of the authors. Kang, for instance, offers a set of prescriptions to revive the health of South Korean society through instituting a systemic overhaul to begin a process of healing. Like an individual recovering from addiction, the addictive society is called to admit to having a problem and stop engaging with the addictive substance, or in this case processes. Also, Nam suggests that South Korea make significant structural changes to South Korean democracy by amending its constitution to strengthen the legislature and creating a parliamentary system to limit the power of the president. Taking these measures would undoubtedly lead to addiction recovery or better governance, but how do we begin overturning this historically rooted and deeply embedded structure, particularly when political and economic elites are so invested in maintaining the status quo? Perhaps providing actionable policy prescriptions that counter the structural dysfunctions addressed by the authors is beyond the scope of this volume. Indeed, the intent of the volume to make sense of the Sewol Ferry disaster in light of specific socioeconomic conditions in South Korea is in of itself a commendable undertaking.

Overall, this compilation is a tremendous contribution to our understanding of the causes and conditions that led to the unconscionable Sewol Ferry disaster. Each chapter, providing incisive and nuanced commentary on the topics involved, may well be read individually as a specialized discussion. The structural organization of the volume as a whole makes the book compulsory reading for the student, community advocate, and policy practitioner interested in understanding South Korea’s modern condition and pursuing alternative visions for a more holistic future. Dedicated to the memory of the Sewol victims and their families, let us hope the conversations contained in this text will impact the policy direction of the new Moon administration and also guide the collective consciousness of South Korea such that the deaths were not in vain.

Haeyoung Kim is on the Board of the Korea Policy Institute, and a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago.


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