speri.comment: the political economy blog

South Korea on the edge

The Sewol ferry disaster may prove to be a tipping point in state-society relations

Jin-Young Chung, Vice-President for External Cooperation and Professor of International Studies at Kyung Hee University in Korea & Timothy Sinclair, Associate Professor of International Political Economy at the University of Warwick and Professor in the Center for Finance, History and Politics at Kyung Hee University

Sinclair and ChungMajor accidents and disasters are crucial not just for those directly involved but also for the society in which they occur and in some cases for regional and global relations.  This is surely true of the Malaysia Airlines loss of flight MH17 in Ukraine: the implications here seem likely to be a turning point in international relations.  The sinking of the Republic of Korea ferry MV Sewol at the southwest tip of mainland Korea may also be a watershed in contemporary Korea, thereafter dividing its history into ‘before’ and ‘after’ the Sewol incident.

The ferry, carrying 476 people, mostly high-school pupils, capsized on 16 April 2014 on a voyage from Incheon near Seoul in the north of South Korea to the island of Jeju, at the southern tip of the country, off the Korean peninsula.  Around 300 people died in the sinking.  The Sewol, formerly the Naminoue, was built in Japan in 1994 and operated there until 2012 when she came to Korea.  Modifications to the ship increased passenger numbers and cargo capacity considerably for Korean service. These modifications were approved by South Korean government agencies under the control of retired high-ranking government officials, derogatively called ‘gwanfia’, a word coined by combing ‘gwanryo’, meaning bureaucrats in Korean, and mafia.

Two additional factors made Koreans so angry about the incident.  First, the ferry’s captain and crew escaped the sinking ship without trying to evacuate passengers.  Second, the Korean coast guard arrived early at the site, but did not try to rescue those within the sinking ship.  Koreans were reawakened to an unpleasant face of their society and witnessed a lack of responsibility and basic competence on the part of their government.

The disaster has affected opinion in South Korea acutely.  Indeed, when flying to Korea in late May, one of us (Sinclair) had this explained by a Korean employee of a major Korean electronics manufacturer sitting next to him on the plane.   President Park Geun-hye had no option but to appear in a nationally televised announcement on 19 May to make a deep apology to the public for the incident.  She vowed with tears in her eyes to carry out a grand reformation of the state by cleaning up deep-rooted evils like ‘gwanfia’.

Local elections were due in early June and the media anticipated devastation for the governing Saenuri Party of President Park.  Her very high and stable approval ratings fell by a third following the event, from 61 to 46 per cent two weeks after the disaster, with her party suffering even more.  But, rather than securing a protest vote and a success for the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) party, it was striking that the opposition suffered a decline in approval too and failed to make major advances in the elections in crucial Seoul and its vicinity.

Similarly, in by-elections for fifteen National Assembly seats held on 30 July, the governing Saenuri defeated NPAD by 11 to 4, a major disaster for the opposition that resulted in the resignation of the NPAD leadership.  NPAD leaders were so eager to take advantage of the Sewol disaster for their political gains that they did not notice that they were also not free from the responsibility themselves.

Although the results of these various elections did not turn out to be the watershed many anticipated, the reaction to the ferry sinking nevertheless runs very deep in Korean society. Much frustration was expressed about the alleged corruption that allowed the ferry to be approved to carry considerably more passengers and freight than it had in Japan.  Government officials, along with the ferry company, Chonghaejin Marine, were the target of heated criticism.

It remains early days still, but it’s likely that the ferry disaster has helped to firm up a deep sense of drift already latent in Korean society.  Korea is rightly proud of its progress from a poor country, ravaged by colonisation and war, to a rich state, member of the OECD and home to globally important corporations that have achieved considerable success in exporting sophisticated products around the world.  But Koreans are now more concerned about their quality of life, including social safety, than growth itself.  They do not want to lose their children and relatives in tragic accidents like the Sewol disaster.  They are also thinking that legacies of the past development model, dictated of course by the government, are now obstacles that need to be overcome to further the country’s advancement.  For its part, the ‘gwanfia’ has unquestionably become public enemy No. 1, identified as the source of all kinds of evils.

In short, things are changing in Korea.  Although the disaster was a terrible thing, the reaction to it may be generating positive developments in the relationship between Korean society and its state.  State-society relations vary widely.  As Gramsci himself noted, Russia traditionally had a state that did not have to deal with a well-developed civil society able to articulate opinion and seek reform in state policy.  Much the same can be said of most developing countries.  Indeed, the means by which developing country states handle or fail to handle differences of view and interest generally go a long way to explain conflict in these places during the post-colonial era.

Our view is that the response to the ferry disaster in Korea signals a tipping point in South Korea’s political and social development.  People are frustrated with the old ways of doing things and their inability to get the state to reform itself.  This has created a new culture of expectations in Korea, which may well become self-reinforcing.  Korean political parties may not survive if they are not very sensitive to these ongoing changes in expectations.

South Korea is an exciting, accomplished country.  These recent events reflect domestic frustration with prevailing patterns of state-society relations and we anticipate more contestation and change to come.  The likely outcome will depend upon the degree to which the political elite of the country can develop a positive story about the changes it deems necessary.

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