Sunday, April 27, 2014

South Korea’s Prime Minister Resigns over Ferry Disaster

According to today’s New York Times, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won has resigned in response to the country’s recent ferry disaster.   To date, prosecutors have identified several factors as the reason why the ship capsized and sank. Most notably, the addition of cabins in the ship’s upper deck made the ship top-heavy undermined the ship’s ability to right itself after the navigator attempted to make a sharp turn in a strong current. In addition, the ship’s crew failed to secure the ship's cargo properly, impairing the ship’s ability to right itself.  Given the nature of these findings, it is unsurprising that prosecutors have arrested the ship’s captain as well as the ship’s navigation officers.  Making matters worse, many members of the crew evacuated the ship first leaving passengers to fend for themselves.  There are also indications that the coast guard radio dispatchers did not respond quickly enough to the disaster.

Culpability for the over 300 deaths caused by the mishap is unlikely to stop there however. Indeed, investigators have identified a number of lax safety measures and weak regulatory oversight as additional reasons why the ship sank. In an indication that prosecutors may be ordering further arrests in the case, prosecutors have barred several officials from a maritime inspection agency from leaving the country.

What makes this case interesting from a comparative law and culture perspective is that, from a legal standpoint, the Prime Minister is not responsible for the deaths of the passengers.  However, the disaster occurred just as the public has become increasingly frustrated over the country’s lax regulatory measures.  The number of disasters caused by ineffective regulations is so high that the country is known as “the land of disasters.” While the country’s current President, Park Geun-hye, has sharply criticized the crew and the regulatory system’s shortcomings, the media has called on her to make good on her campaign promise to become the “administration of safety.”

That disconnect between the Administration’s campaign promise and the role that government regulators played in the disaster created a unique pressure point. In the United States, the finger-pointing would have most likely led a lower ranking government official to resign in an attempt to deflect the criticism from the President. Of course, our more recent political history suggests that an official on the hot seat may wait to resign until the disaster has abated so that they can point to other reasons for resigning.  When an elected politician is involved in a character-related “incident,” members of their party may attempt to pressure them to resign so that the issue does not tarnish the party’s reputation.  Still, the concept of character in the U.S. is more fluid than in other countries around the globe. There are many examples in American politics where a disgraced politician has rehabilitated their reputation.

While criminal culpability for the incident may be limited to those directly involved in the disaster, from a societal perspective, the responsibility for the accident extends beyond those immediately responsible up to the top layers of government. Underlying the prime minister’s resignation is the sense of honor and responsibility that undergirds South Korean society. As the number two person in an administration that had pledged itself to improving the safety of South Korean citizens, the prime minister’s resignation was a politically symbolic way for the government to save face.  

Another causality of the disaster, Kang Min Khu, was the Vice Principal of the school where many of the students on the ship hailed from.  Though Khu survived the disaster, he committed suicide two days later.  In the disaster’s aftermath, many of the students’ family members had chastised him as the field trip was his idea and he had not ensured the students’ safety.  Committing suicide in an Asian society is one way that individuals attempt to save face and to atone for their public disgrace.

Several individuals on board did act honorably. Most notably, one female crew member, Jee Young, handed out life jackets and helped several passengers escape the ship.  Unfortunately, the 22 year old woman, perished as the ship sank.


Madison Park and Stella Kim, “As Sewel Crew is scorned, young worker hailed as heroine,“ CNN, April 23, 2014.

 Choe Sang-Hun, “Inquiry in Ferry Disaster Shifts to Safety Certification, “New York Times, April 25, 2014.

Choe Sang-Hun, “Korea Confronts Tendency to Overlook Safety as Toll in Ferry Sinking Grows, April 22, 2014.

Choe Sang-Hun, “South Korean Prime Minister Offers to Resign Over Deadly Ferry Disaster,” April 26, 2014.

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