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Asia-Pacific / South Korea

The Politics of National Mourning

On Tuesday, November 12, 60 year old Lee Joon-Seok was sentenced to 36 years in prison. Upon hearing the verdict, outraged family members of the deceased demanded an appeal and a revision to the death sentence. Lee was initially accused of murder for his conduct as captain during the sinking of the Sewol ferry, where over 300 lives were lost, one of the country’s worst peacetime disasters. Photos of Lee depicting him jumping into the arms of rescuers drew widespread accusations that the captain prioritized his safety over that of his passengers and failed to carry out an effective rescue mission. Throughout the five-month trial, those with loved ones among the deceased screamed profanities at the captain and his crew: one relative held up a sign that read, “You are not human. You are beneath animals.” President Park Geun-Hye likened the actions of the captain and his crew as “akin to murder.” Prosecutors demanded the death penalty, a sentence Korean courts have not handed down since 1997.

Attorney Kang Jung-min has questioned whether or not a fair trial was even possible, claiming that Sewol crewmembers were demonized by the Korean media. He told CNN, “The public and the court does not have a good impression of the crew members, so the crew are likely to become scapegoats”. Although at first glance, the case might seem to be one of fatal incompetence, further examination reveals that behind the South Korean media’s public vilification of the crew lies a sprawling system of bureaucratic and corporate corruption where basic safety regulations are ignored for profit. In the case of the ferry, for example, investigators pointed to evidence that the ferry was overloaded, the construction unsound, and the crew unqualified, suggesting an accident was inevitable.

The Yoo family that controlled the Cheonghaejin Marine Co, which ran the ferry, also faced a trial, albeit a much less publicized one, prefaced by President Park Geun Hye’s public denouncement of the family. The eldest son of the Yoo family, Yoo Dae-kyoon, was charged with embezzlement and sentenced to three years in prison (his father, Yoo Byung-eun faced similar charges but was found dead in July after several months of evading arrest). Although the Yoo family initially denied any involvement with the company, further investigation revealed that the family indirectly controlled and exploited Chonghaejin through an investment company. Overall, the Yoo family, and the companies they controlled, received a total of at least $3.82 million from the ferry company in recent years, not including the $2.5 million the ferry company spent to buy stakes in other Yoo-affiliated companies. Meanwhile, the ferry company floundered, reporting losses of over $760,000 just last year. A New York Times article reports that the company spent just $2 last year on safety training for the Sewol ferry’s crewmembers. That money went towards buying a paper copy of a certificate.

Yoo’s family and supporters have lashed out, pointing fingers back at the government, claiming that President Park Geun-Hye has directed attention to them to deflect attention away from herself and the government. They claim it was the neglect of officials responsible for public safety and reliance on businesses to police themselves that allowed the ferry company to continue to operate. The general public has also protested against the government’s failure to prevent the disaster and find Mr. Yoo Byung-eun and bring him to trial before his death. Park’s approval ratings have plummeted throughout the incident, and some have called for her resignation.

However, these accusations are simply two pieces of the same puzzle, and point to a larger issue of the endemic collusion between the private and public sectors in Korea, or the “gwanfia” – a combination of the word gwanryo (bureaucrat) and mafia. Public safety officials often with collaborate with chaebols, or family run conglomerates of immense size and power, such as the Yoo family. Implicit or explicit understandings that they or their family members will be rewarded after retirement from public service – by being placed in powerful positions in areas of the private sector they were supposed to be regulating – provide strong incentives for officials to shirk their duties. In a vicious cycle, these former bureaucrats in private enterprises are well placed to continue to press demands.

Furthermore, under the current system, bureaucrats are forced to retire if they cannot be promoted once they exceed the age of 50, and the highest level of office often only lasts a year. Thus, in the final term of any administration, officials compete fiercely for job security – this competition often ends with an arrangement, giving those that have to go powerful positions in private sector companies.

For example, Haewoon, the Korean Shipping Association, was contracted by the government to make sure ships were following safety regulations – the sinking of the ferry revealed Haewoon had not been properly overseeing these regulations. Further investigation revealed that of the twelve individuals who have served as chairman of the board of directors at Haewoon, ten had previously held positions in major government bodies, including the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.

Despite Park’s tearful promises, prospects for real reform in the near future seem unlikely. The National Assembly attempted to begin drafting new legislation last summer. However bickering over the details of legislation protracted the debate. Furthermore, the proposed legislation does not make provisions to ensure that public sector officials overseeing transparency will remain free from collusion with the private sector.

Indeed, this is one of several dilemmas facing reform: the lack of qualified replacements and the sheer expanse of Korean chaebol influence. There is no guarantee that new candidates will not fall into the same system as their predecessors. Furthermore, bureaucratic reform cannot be accomplished with political will alone – the president would make thousands of enemies in public and private sectors in a fight against deep, long-standing ties. Such a war would be too extensive and costly for a single administration to handle, and chaebol reforms have been promised in the early stages of nearly every administration without results.

However, incremental change, backed by public support, is not impossible. The Sewol ferry incident has directed attention and ire towards bureaucratic corruption. The National Assembly, under public pressure, has continued to debate proposed regulation regarding bureaucratic reform. 300 lives have been given. Hopefully the lessons learned from the Sewol tragedy will not only prevent further loss of life, but also illuminate the path to progress.