S Korean ferry tragedy – deregulation, complacency, and incompetence, not ‘culture.’

I was quoted in today’s article by Kai Ma in TIME: “Culture Blaming and Stereotyping in the South Korean Ferry Tragedy” (April 25, 2014). Ma insightfully argues that “culture blaming” — the racist idea that “culture of obedience” and youth deference to authority is the culprit for the devastating loss of lives on the ferry – depicts Sewol ferry victims as persons without humanity and individual agency.

It’s a question that is haunting a nation, baffling pundits, and challenging a highly militarized government hailed for its organization and efficiency. And while Sewol’s captain remains Public Enemy No. 1, media outlets are factoring in a more amorphous villain: South Korean culture. “Media coverage has portrayed the ferry disaster either as a terrible tragedy that any person can sympathize with,” says Ju Hui Judy Han, a professor of cultural geography of travel at the University of Toronto, “or as a bizarre accident that could have only happened somewhere else.”


Should aspects of Korean society be scrutinized? Of course. Poor communication, disorganization, and complacency – compounded with fumbling bureaucracies and the lack of protocol and proper training – resulted in a botched rescue mission that has South Korea reeling. But to theorize that the high death toll is linked to a perceived cultural flaw or deficiency is a lazy journalistic shortcut. It fits a stereotype.

Here are a few memes I made up (my first!) in response to an idiotic article in The Los Angeles Times titled “Ferry disaster fills South Korea with shame” (April 23, 2014) and the author’s despicable tweet, “‪#‎Sewol‬ ferry disaster is a challenge to S Korean Confucian society, a case study in when not to listen to authority.”