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South Korea’s annus horribilis

Last update - Tuesday, July 1, 2014, 11:09 By Andrew Farrell

  This year will be remembered as South Korea’s annus horribilis – and we’re not even halfway through it. 

As the nation crawls from one self-inflicted disaster to another, I’m reminded of two quotes that amply describe the current feeling in the country. The first, from the father of one of my students, focuses on the inability to apportion blame elsewhere. 

“This time, we can only look at ourselves,” he said following the Sewol ferry disaster in April. The vessel, which sunk off the south coast on a voyage from Incheon to Jeju, was carrying over 450 people when it began to list in the early morning of Wednesday 16 April.

The final death toll of 302 passengers and three divers was set to be confirmed at time of writing. Most of the deceased were high school students from the Seoul suburb of Ansan. The crew of the Sewol has since gone on trial; 15 members, including Captain Lee Joon-seok, will face charges ranging from negligence to homicide in the southern provincial city of Gwangju.

What is interesting about that aforementioned quote is that previously there was a perception that someone else, such as North Korea, must be responsible for such major incidents. 

Two years ago, when new evidence was casting doubt on the north’s reasonability for sinking the warship Cheonan in 2010, a poll of young Koreans showed an alarming number pointing the finger elsewhere, in some cases to Japan and the US military.

According to my student’s father, for the first time ever Koreans have no one else to blame but themselves. That is what he took from the Sewol tragedy.

The second quote is from a newspaper editorial. South Korea may be a first-rate country in terms of economic growth, but it is a third-rate one when it comes to the ability to protect its citizens from danger and keep them safe. This explains why the country, which is relatively free from natural disasters and terrorism, “regularly” holds “group memorials”.

As bodies were still being retrieved from the cold waters and the nation still in mourning, South Korea was rocked by two separate incidents, barely 48 hours apart, that led to 28 deaths and cast more doubts about President Park‘s emergency response units.

On 26 May, a fire ripped through the bus terminal in Goyang, west of Seoul, killing seven people. Authorities believed that welding work in a nearby underground construction site may have caused the blaze. It was also reported at the time that some of the bodies may have been found in the adjoining cinema, as customers were buying movie tickets when the fire broke out.

Two days later, 21 people were killed after a fire broke out at a nursing home in the southern province of Jeolla. An 81-year-old patient suffering from dementia is believed to be under investigation for starting the fire. Park Yong-gu, an official at the emergency centre, said the number of fatalities was “large because the patients were sleeping and most of them have problems moving due to senile illnesses, including Alzheimer’s.”

And there’s more. In early May, one train rear-ended another on Seoul’s subway line 2 at Sangwangsimni Station. There were no fatalities but nearly 200 people were injured, many taken to nearby hospitals.

It was later revealed that a number of survivors forced open the doors and made their escape onto the metro tracks despite on-board announcements not to exit the carriages. One of the major disclosures following the Sewol crash, of course, was that the boat passengers were told to stay in their bedrooms as the boat began to sink.

A week later, a cable explosion at my local overground metro station resulted in 11 injuries but thankfully no deaths.

As the newspaper editorial points out, is this country incapable of protecting its citizens, even though it doesn’t suffer from natural disasters or terrorism? What, alas, will the rest of 2014 bring?


Andrew Farrell works as an English language teacher in Korea.

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