After Sewol, Impeachment Means Healing

The scandal broke in October. Government employees and a friend of the president, Choi Soon-sil, had extorted upwards of 77.4 billion Won (774 million USD) from Korean conglomerates, like Samsung and Hyundai. The absurdity of the whole affair centered around the relationship between President Park Geun-hye and Soon-sil. The latter, despite having no official government position or authorization, had enjoyed access to confidential information, had edited Park’s speeches and had her ear, allegedly using this special influence over the President to shape policy. The allegations against Soon-sil were numerous, diverse and some quite bizarre: from money laundering, to coercing the prestigious Ewha Woman’s University into admitting her daughter, to having companies like Samsung pay for her daughter’s equestrian education (including an $830,000 horse named Vladimir) in Germany. The media immediately began drawing comparisons between Park’s Soon-sil and Tsarina Alexandra’s Rasputin. 

The public was shocked, then humiliated, and, finally, outraged. As with any large-scale political scandal that implicates government officials and the most-esteemed business owners, the blunt force of impact initially left the national psyche paralyzed. By the end of the month, President Park’s approval rating stood at a dismal 5%. 

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Over the following months, top government aides, University officials, and the vice-president and heir of Samsung were all arrested. Protests drew at first tens of thousands and then millions of citizens, most of them demanding Park’s resignation. By December, the impeachment proceedings had been set in motion, and, on March 10, 2017, Park was successfully impeached by a unanimous vote. The atmosphere in the capital was triumphant, relieved, exhausted. Less than two weeks after Park’s impeachment, MV Sewol—the ferry that had sunk three years prior, killing nearly 300, mostly high-school students to the horror of the entire nation—was finally brought to the surface. The national psyche, though far from content, seemed to finally be mending. 

Where does South Korea stand now, with a former President in detention awaiting trial, an interim president, and elections set for the second week of May? In a sense, the impeachment, which has been hailed as a ‘triumph of democracy,’ can be seen not as an episode of fracturing but as an experience through which the national psyche might heal. Looking at these political changes in context reveals an undercurrent of disillusionment that has been several years in the making—a disillusionment which was formed, at least in part, by the Sewol ferry tragedy. 

To say that a shipwreck could be extraordinarily traumatic to a nation’s psyche seems a stretch, even for the least skeptical. But that is indeed what happened in April 2014 when the MV Sewol sunk off the coast of the mainland. The details of this calamity were so particular, so troubling—the teenaged victims, the captain abandoning ship, the absent President, the manhunts, resignations, and suicides—that they created a perfect storm, so affecting that, one could argue, it continues to shape the public even today. 

Recent events, such as the death of revered Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej last October or the election of President Trump, provide a more complete picture of how events can visibly impact a national psyche, a prevailing mood cast across the country. However, dramatic events do not always have such an effect on a nation; it takes a particularity in the event to resonate deeply with a people and their national identity. 

Sewol did strike such a nerve for many Koreans. This profound disturbance came down to a combination of factors: the death of hundreds of high schoolers, the clumsy rescue operation, and the preventability of the accident by proper regulation. 

Of the 325 eleventh-graders on the ferry, only 75 survived. According to reports that emerged after the incident, the captain had ordered the students over the loudspeaker: “Don’t move from your seats!” The students hadn’t moved, either out of obedience or out of a lack of proper safety protocol to follow. The captain and several crew members, however, fled the ship. By never issuing an evacuation order, they left hundreds of schoolchildren to die. The children’s final texts to their parents still haunt the Web. 

The rescue operation was even more uncoordinated: the first alert of an emergency came not from the crew but from a passenger, a boy who made the call on his cellphone. The Coast Guard lacked the personnel and divers to conduct a proper rescue mission. The President was missing for seven hours after the sinking was reported. The stories from the rescue team of screaming passengers trapped inside, of the boat being too far listed, and the cellphone records from sixteen- and seventeen-year olds to their mothers and fathers are haunting. The authorities on the boat, in the Blue House, and in the Coast Guard ultimately failed to protect those children that day. Two days after the disaster, the vice-principal of the Danwon High School, where many of the deceased attended school, committed suicide. The note he left behind expressed shame and guilt for having survived the shipwreck, for failing to protect his students, and for his role in planning the field trip, the reason the students were on the ferry. 

The ferry, it was later revealed, had been overloaded nearly to twice its capacity; the cargo had been improperly secured, possibly shifting the balance of the boat; and the boat itself, originally purchased in Japan by the Korean Cheonghaejin Marine Company, had been illegally redeveloped to fit more passengers. The public struggled to make meaning of so much senseless death and the conditions of capitalist greed that had caused such disaster. 

The nation assumed a collective blame, a phenomenon perhaps related to the concept of woori (“us”); in the Korean language “us” is used in place of personal pronouns like “my,” so “my family” becomes “our family.” A mood that could only be described as depression took hold of the nation. Research attempting to quantify this depression tracked suicide and depression-related keywords on Twitter, finding that even after the initial spike had relented, frequencies remained higher than the baseline for months after the disaster. One paper concluded that “both those directly affected and the general public still suffer from the effects of this traumatic event and its aftermath.” 

The Korea Development Index’s Monthly Economic Trends report for the month following the sinking notes: “Private consumption-related indicators, including retail sales index, weakened due to negative influences brought by the Sewol ferry tragedy.” In other words, no one was buying. As more specificities emerged and the text messages that parents had received from their drowning children were published, it seemed absurd to go shopping. 

There is a strong tendency in South Korean politics for public apologies, proclamations of shame, and subsequent resignations. Though they may provide short-term public appeasement, these acts do little in the long-term process of reconciliation. Despite the Prime Minister’s resignation, the manhunt for the owner of Chonghaejin Marine Co, who was eventually found dead, the arrest of his family members, and the ferry captain’s 36-year jail sentence, the national mood remained deeply troubled. The most powerful attempt to move forward came in the form of yellow ribbons, tied first across the gate of Danwon High School. The ribbons crept onto social media and were shared widely across the web. Outside City Hall in Seoul stands a memorial, strewn in yellow ribbons, dedicated to the Sewol victims. 

For the last three years, the site of the sinking has been a space of competition and conflict between civil advocates of the victims’ families and political groups with various agendas. It has also become a place of unending mourning for the families of the nine victims whose bodies still have not been found. 

The family of one victim asked if the rescue response would have been different had the high schoolers been from bourgeois city of Gangnam, where political and corporate elite are concentrated, rather than from proletarian Ansan. The question was a fair one, given Korea’s deep class divisions, marked both by envy and true rancor towards those born with a “gold spoon” over a “dirt spoon.” 

In looking at this tension, we can understand the attitude towards the fault-lines of Korea’s modern society that this wreck has revealed: cultural struggles of reconciling traditional values with the pace of economic and social change in the last few decades; class divides breeding resentment; the paradox of an advanced economy with the corruption of another era. 

Public safety had been a part of Park’s presidential campaign in 2012, and yet, once more, one of the most advanced economies in the world had acted incompetently when faced with a preventable disaster. In fact, through rampant corruption (of which the 2016-2017 political scandal would later reveal the full extent), lax security procedures, and disorganized response mechanisms, Korea’s ruling establishment had inadvertently engineered the Sewol disaster. Once again, public safety—what should be a fundamental concern—was hugely, horrifically compromised. The initial absence of President Park and the lack of accountability in the rescue were early signs of her ineptitude as a leader. The hesitation of other authorities to take control is symptomatic of a larger problem of inadequate training and protocol. 

Centering the public reaction to Park’s scandal within the framework of Sewol allows a different view of the protests and impeachment—not as an abrupt rupture within Korean society but more as a form of reconciliation for the national psyche. Activism invigorated a former despair; the physical recovery of the boat and the political rejection of Park provided a long-awaited sense of accomplishment and perhaps, finally, progress. 

Though the end of Park’s presidency has provided relief to this trauma, it is but the beginning. Koreans must bear in mind that Park, Soon-sil, and all those implicated in this scandal are but manifestations of a broader disease in society. Whoever wins the next election, likely to be from the liberal opposition party, must focus his or her attention on combating corruption and exceptionalism towards the political and corporate elite and on improving safety regulations and response mechanisms. Only then will Korea’s national psyche be able to truly move forward from Sewol, with the security of knowing such a calamity will never happen again.