Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

What not to say about the Sewol disaster

blue dot
Apr 22 2014

The extent to which we are personally affected by news of a tragedy is proportionate to how close we feel to its victims. So a disaster in some far-off part of the world has less of an emotional impact than one in your own country, and one in a distant city is less emotional than one affecting your neighbours.

That’s natural, and so I can understand if the Sewol tragedy is not something that greatly affected you. But for me it has been heart-wrenching. I feel a genuine sense of grief about it.

Partly this is because the details are so horrible; partly it is because of the immediacy of the video footage and the constancy of the television coverage of it here. But mostly it is because I have taught so many classes of Korean students. And so I feel like I know those kids. They could have been my students. While I’ve never taught high school, the first students I taught in Korea are now in high school; many more will enter high school next year; and the first-year university students I am teaching now are only recently graduated.

I do know those kids. I know their dreams for their future, their interests, how they acted with their friends, their teachers, the opposite sex. I know how they worked hard and how they goofed off.

But I will understand if their deaths do not affect you in quite the same way. With one exception: if, being vaguely familiar with Korea, it occurs to you to make the following speculation:

Like other Asian nations, South Korean society is based on a neo-Confucian culture which emphasises obedience to authority figures and deference to elders … “Obedient” students on the ship are among the missing, while “disobedient” students survived.

…then take a deep breath, think for a moment, and please – just shut the fuck up.

To be fair, most of the outside commentators on this have known better. But some – from journalists to people on my facebook feed to the usual idiots at waygook.org – have not been able to resist offering up this simplistic thesis, invariably with an air of smug self-satisfaction, as if they and only they have truly seen the root cause of what happened.

Don’t be one of these people.

Firstly: because you’re wrong. Secondly: because your idea is not only simplistic, but a racist slur against a bunch of innocent dead kids. And you don’t want to be that person.

For the first, Jakob Dorof at Vice has laid out the timeline of the accident and the instructions to passengers, showing why this idea is wrong, thus saving me from having to do it. You can read the details there, but put simply: when initially told to stay where they were, the passengers, not being experts in maritime safety, had no basis to question the instructions. By the time a reasonable person could have concluded that it was bad advice, the ship was so heavily listed as to make movement almost impossible. Human beings can’t walk on floors that have become walls. They can’t climb flat surfaces at a canted forty-five degree angle. This report of this text message conversation between a father and daughter makes this clear:

“Dad, don’t worry. I’ve got a life vest on and we’re huddled together.”

Dad’s reply: “I know the rescue is underway but make your way out if you can.”

“Dad, I can’t walk out,” she replied. “The corridor is full of kids, and it’s too tilted.”

For the second – the idea is racist because it reduces a bunch of thinking individuals to a group of mindless automatons, sitting stupidly in place while they drowned. It is a horrifically offensive slander against a bunch of dead kids. Do not, do not go there.

I said before that I felt like I know these kids. And I do. Are Korean students, generally speaking, somewhat more obedient than students in the west? Probably. But anyone who has taught them knows that they are far from being mindlessly obedient. And it is not hard for me to imagine a parallel situation, and so know how they would have acted.

If, for instance, I was teaching a classroom of Korean kids, and the school caught on fire, and I told them to stay in their seats, I am sure they would comply. But if we were on the ground floor, and there was a window in the classroom opening onto the playground, it would be a matter of seconds before my students started suggesting that maybe we should just go out the window. If I told them to stay in their seats as the flames continued to approach, they would argue with me fiercely. When it became obvious that my instructions were idiotic, they would ignore me and climb out the window.

Some would do it more quickly than others. A few, trusting me as the responsible adult, might continue to wait. They are individuals, influenced by their culture as we all are. But not a single one of them would sit there and burn to death because they had been instructed to do so.

A slightly different situation, perhaps closer to that of the Sewol tragedy. The students are alone in the classroom. An announcement comes over the school intercom from the principal, saying that there is a fire in the school, and students should remain where they are. How long would the students wait before deciding themselves that it was a better idea to get out of the classroom? I don’t know, but I’m sure of this: when the first whisp of smoke came under the door, the students would get out of the classroom, regardless of what the principal had announced over the intercom.

I’ll tell you what else I know: they wouldn’t shove or trample each other. If there were students who couldn’t make it out, other students would help them get out.

We’ll never know exactly what happened to the students on the boat: what choices they made and what they tried to do. But one thing I am certain about: they died as thinking individuals, with individual dreams for the future, doing their best to survive and help their friends. To suggest otherwise is grotesque.

One other thing: if you do still want to think that neo-Confucianism had something to do with the tragedy, you might also consider this. One area in which the influence of neo-Confucian ideas on contemporary Korean culture is clear is in the relationships of siblings – an idea which extends to older and younger friends who are considered like siblings: hyeong, nuna, etc. In this relationship the younger sibling has a duty to respect the elder, and the elder in turn has a duty of benevolent care to the younger. So, while you’re examining the role of neo-Confucianism in this tragedy, you might also stop for a moment and think about what role it played in this:

A 6-year-old boy surnamed Kwon had put his lifejacket on his 5-year-old sister as the ferry Sewol went down.

“He told his sister that he would go and find their parents,” the boy’s aunt said.

Kwon and his parents remain missing, and the sister is being looked after by her grandmother.


Waegukin wrote these 1217 words on April 22nd, 2014 | Posted in Culture |


18 comments on “What not to say about the Sewol disaster”

  1. cellist says:

    I felt such genuine compassion in this post. I only hope that people on the Internet are half as thoughtful as you are. Please keep enlightening us and reminding us that there are plenty of respectful and perceptive Waeguks like you in the country.

  2. Sydney says:

    Thank you! Great post. People need to first and foremost remember that these are children’s lives that were lost. And just sit on that for a while before they decide to speak.

  3. Jeongint says:

    I am studying Korean in Seoul now. I am on a break from teaching English to mostly Korean kids back home. I can’t stand people quoting culture, history, dragging Confucius into this… People need to see them as people, scared and confused people putting their trust in other people, who were also in a dilemma as to what should be done. Unfortunately, things turned bad but it is NOT a result of culture, history or a long-deceased Chinese man.

    The body of the 6 year old boy has been found.

  4. Jeongint says:

    FYI I am not criticising your article. I am agreeing with it. I am ethnically Chinese so I am not making fun of nor trivialising Confucius either.

    I wish I could go down to Jindo and do something but with my current grasp of Korean, I might make things worse. =(

  5. thinker says:

    well said. I’m also tired of reading the same old poorly thought out crap that most 외국인 post. Thankful to stumble across this post

  6. Koun says:

    Thanks for a good article.
    I more think of it not an obedience due to neo-Confucian culture, but a rule observance due to social compact. In the society where social compacts function, following the guideline will achieve higher safety than relying on individuals’ judge. It will also have many safeguards which prevent individuals’s safety from being governed by own ability and others’ ethics in business.
    We’ve educated our students to follow the guidelines of the society, but the society itself turns out not to be capable to save our children. If it was Japan, no matter students were obedient because of neo-Confucian culture, domestication by the government, high social compacts or whatever, they probably could save their children who’ve followed the guideline. We Koreans couldn’t make that society and I feel deep depression and guilty feeling for the students…

  7. Heeyeon Kim says:

    Thank you. I’ll share with my friends on facebook.

  8. Koun says:

    And as you pointed out, applying preknowledge which should be used to help comprehending the situation, before knowing enough about the situation, is racism. Like people apply neo-Confucian culture to Sewol and rule observance to Hudson, etc., regardless the situation.

  9. lininkorea says:


  10. cbert says:

    Saying only culture caused all the bad things to happen is reductionist. But saying culture had nothing to do with what happened is equally reductionist. Neither is necessarily racist. Saying obedience to authority played a role is not the same as saying someone had no cognitive ability. Many Koreans and people of other cultures are considering these issues in the wake of all this sadness and apparent negligence on the part of some people in authority roles. Cultural discussions are important to understanding and exchange, even when they are not always entirely on the mark. Part of the human process after tragedy is analysis and can be a way of sharing and growth. Cultures are not static.

  11. John Thompson says:

    When I read it, I just knew you hadn’t been here that long. Looked at your bio and was not surprised at all. Here is one of my favourite people to read in Korea.


  12. Katherine Teacher says:


  13. Waegukin says:

    Thank you to everyone who read, shared and commented on this.

    I didn’t really want to write about this tragedy, and wouldn’t have done so had I not seen people making a single bad and offensive argument about the behaviour of the students in the immediate aftermath of the accident, a topic – the behaviour of Korean students – on which I did have some perspective.

    I still don’t want to write about it, particularly about the appropriacy or otherwise of looking at larger cultural issues in attempting to make sense of this tragedy, and so won’t be replying further here.

  14. lana says:

    Thank you very much. Korean kids are actually more obsessed with thinking on their own more than Korean adults or western people would like to give them credit for. I know I spent my youth worrying if I can think on my feet constantly being told you have to learn how to think and you can only trust yourself etc. I see many Koreans struggling with this with everyone emphasizing critical, creative, analytical thinking skills. Point is, we all need to take a step back and respect the kids and the family who are affected by this tragedy. Sure we can all reflect a bit and see what we can do better for ourselves and younger generation to ensure they grow into people who can trust themselves and others but we do not need to go analyzing their behavior instead of the situations that made them act in certain ways. I can’t stand to see more people insult the children and their family. So many are already suffering wondering if they raised their child wrong. Why did this child survive and mine didn’t? Why did I not raise my child to be more proactive? Etc. There was a six year old who gave his life jacket to his little sister and he went off to find his parents to never return. The five year old girl was later saved by a seventeen year old boy. They all did what they can in the situation. We don’t need to analyze whether it is Korean culture of old person needing to take care of the young propelled them to act this way. We don’t need to ask if they were programmed to do so or if they acting purely out of heart. Right now they don’t need some meaningless cultural analysis. They need the support so many have refused to give them.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Every Korean I talked to thought their culture played a part with the kids staying. So you are wrong..

  16. Warren says:

    For the message above…from Anonymous…how many Koreans did you ask? I am sure many people think that culture played a role, but that doesn’t make this article wrong. We all have different cultures and beliefs, but that does not mean we don’t have common sense. There are human instincts we all have when in danger, regardless of where you are in the world. So if you did not know any of the people on the ship, then you cannot speak for them. And for “Every” Korean person you spoke to, I doubt they actually said that these kids were sitting around waiting to die…that is just absurd.


  1. Processing the Sewol Tragedy – Steven D. Ward
  2. ¿Naufragio confuciano? – Chinochano

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