The Blame Game

Often when disaster strikes it actually brings out the best of people. Unlikely and unsung heroes are make out of ordinary people who suddenly find themselves with the ability or in the position to save peoples lives. Such were those who scoffed danger and charged into the twin towers, or those who partook in cooling down Fukushima Daiichi despite knowing full well the longer they stayed around there the shorter their lifespan would become. These sorts of events bring together communities, and humble us by the assistance of the international community such as when the tsunami struck Thailand and Indonesia.

However, when the rescue efforts don't have much effect; when the safety nets designed to save people fail we find fault within the very system itself. We ask why procedure wasn't followed, why equipment wasn't checked, why personnel were not properly trained, and why those with the explicit responsibility to do so failed to act.

What we usually don't do, is criticize those on the ground making an effort to improve the situation. We don't rebuke the disaster relief workers who pitched in during the cleanup after hurricane Katrina. Nor do we fault authority figures for these incidents no matter how badly they may have responded to these crises. Obama gets no blame for the Boston marathon bombings, just as Christie gets none for hurricane Sandy.

In the case of the Sewol disaster we are seeing a lot of blame getting thrown around. From the crew who are labeled as indifferent, to the coast guard and divers who are lambasted as inefficient, to the Pak Gyun-Hye administration who are lampooned as ineffectual. (ok not quite lampooned, but it works with my alliteration). Anyway... The point I'm getting to here is there is one group that is noticeably absent from most opinions I've read on the situation; that is the Chonghaejin Marine Company.

The saying in the military is that shit rolls down hill. However, when the shit hits the fan I believe the inverse is true. Sure enough the actions of Lee Joon-Seok and other crew on the scene are primarily to blame, however those that loaded the ship, decided to have it sail faster to save time, inappropriately modified the ferry, and didn't have adequate emergency training provided to the crew are equally to blame if not more so. It's these management-level decisions to cut corners, curb expenditures, and disregard public safety that ultimately result is such shocking levels of incompetence when effective actions and leadership are needed most.

Captain Lee Joon-Seok
Captain of the Sewol, Lee Joon-Seok
Sure enough the government is responsible for keeping transport companies in check. I don't know to what degree they were faithful to these obligations but they clearly also need to get their house in order. They should have already learned this lesson in 1993. While it seems the company won't actually escape the fallout of this disaster, it would be great if their responsibility was more widely acknowledged. There surely were a lot of fuck-ups that finally resulted in this tragedy from various groups with various different functions in society (the Korean media for example, which has been flagellated in the past, by better netizens than I). One thing I find particularly unfortunate is a sentiment of collective responsibility that extends right out to any adults who in some way may have helped form the system which allowed this disaster to occur. While spreading the shame around in this manner is an interesting cultural manifestation, Korea actually might be able to retreat from a culture of willful public negligence. One might hope that this will bring about meaningful change, I however am slightly more pessimistic. Systemic change occurs very slowly, and while I'm sure some lessons will be learned, others have the potential to be lost.

UPDATE: It seems that not long after I originally posted this, I managed to find a few articles pointing to how 70 executives from Chonghaejin Marine had their passports confiscated, subject to an investigation. In addition to a few raids that were conducted on the company and personal property of the CEO, this at least shows the public prosecutors intent to bring these guys to justice.

UPDATE 2: After the dust has (sort of) settled now, and with at least 18 individuals still unaccounted for my previous statements regarding the shifting of blame seems to have come to a head in president Park's newest move. This kind of action amounts to a poorly veiled scapegoating effort. It is essentially faulting the ill-equipped disaster responders, rather than corruption in the Korean Shipping Association and the Chonghaejin Marine Company (The leader of which is seems has taken shelter in the compound of a religious cult he leads...Ridiculous). So TLDR: rather than throw some much needed resources at the coast guard, who had apparently been kicked in the nuts even before the disaster, she decided to neuter them by austerity!

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