The Sewol Ferry Disaster - Cultural Considerations

Navigating swift and unpredictable waters during the morning hours of 16 April 2014, the South Korean ferry named the Sewol made a sharp turn, began listing, and within two hours was completely on her side – 12.5 miles from the southwestern coast of the Korean peninsula. Of more than 470 passengers and crew onboard, the majority were high school students on an extended field trip.

One Disaster, But Many Bad Decisions A month after the disaster, 288 have been confirmed dead and 16 are still unaccounted for. After days of searching, the rescue became a mission to recover bodies. Survivors began telling their accounts of what happened on the ferry. The students who escaped the wreckage publically claimed that those students who died were simply obeying the crew’s orders to stay below deck and await further instruction. As one CNN report stated following the disaster, “Obedience in the young is prized. Parental protection is the reward.”

There are plenty of reasons why the Sewol sank, including the following series of events:

  • An inexperienced third mate at the helm made a sharp turn in notoriously unsure water.
  • Improperly secured and excessively heavy cargo shifted.
  • Previous work to refit the number of sleeping cabins onboard affected the ferry’s balance.
  • “Watertight” doors allowed hallways and rooms to flood.
  • Confusion sparked panic as inexperienced crew tried to decide what to do.
  • Crewmembers failed to notify the proper authorities. Instead of contacting the nearby Coast Guard, the crew contacted a vessel traffic service 50 miles away. This in turn caused a 53-minute delay in rescue mobilization.
  • The crew hesitated to follow the directions provided by a port operator, heard on recordings frantically yelling at the crew to evacuate the ship. The crew claimed that the public announcement system was broken, that the ship was listing at too severe an angle to move about, and that there were too many passengers to board the arriving helicopters. “It’s completely impossible for the Sewol ferry to evacuate,” one crewmember said.

Most of the crew and some of the passengers were rescued before the ship disappeared under the water. Unfortunately, the majority of deaths were high school students and adults who heeded the crew’s instructions to remain below deck and await further instruction. Those instructions never came.

Profits, Deadlines & Obedience The Confucian-influenced teachings of young people in Korea stress obedience. In fact, authoritarianism is prevalent in many facets of Korean society. In addition to youths being taught to obey their elders, there is also a hoobae-sunbae (translated as “junior-senior”) order of obedience that is not age dependent. Hoobae are those with less experience in business or in academic settings. Sunbae are their seniors (at their jobs or schools) and hold greater social power.

Hoobae are expected to speak politely and respectfully to sunbae. When the crew of the Sewol told the passengers to stay where they were in the lower decks, this hoobae-sunbae “pecking-order” dictated that they do so. When told to wear their life vests, which may have prevented them from moving out of the quickly rising waters, they did so. They obeyed because, to do otherwise, would have been socially unacceptable.

There are other cultural aspects important to understanding the sinking of the Sewol. Among developed nations, South Korea has the highest rate of accidents. NBC News reported in May 2014 that, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), each year an estimated 31,000 South Koreans die from various types of accidents – automobile crashes to fires – accounting for 12.8 percent of yearly mortality. Regulatory enforcement also may contribute to this death toll.

The same NBC News report noted that the Korean economic phrase ppali ppali (meaning “hurry hurry”) is often used in the Korean work environment. Protecting the dignity and reputation of a company and its workers are important in Asian cultures. With myriad rules and regulations, some business professionals choose to skirt basic rules and navigate around safety regulations to meet strict deadlines.

In a desire for rapid economic growth in the era of post-colonial rule, South Korean authorities may have sacrificed safety and paid for it in the lives of its own people. Following the Sewol sinking, South Korean prosecutors discovered that a sister ship, named the Ohamana (also owned by the Chonghaejin Marine Company), was operating with unsafe equipment, including 40 defective life rafts and unusable emergency slides. Of the 44 lifeboats aboard the Sewol, only two were launched; it is unknown at this time if they would have worked had they been deployed.

In a similar Japanese ferry disaster in 2007, the cabins added to the top deck to increase passenger capacity shifted the center of gravity and led to that ferry capsizing. The Sewol’s sleeping cabins were refitted as recently as 2013, which may have made the ship too top-heavy. In light of recent developments, South Korean authorities arrested the Chonghaejin Marine Company’s chief executive officer on charges of death by negligence. The Sewol was carrying twice the ferry’s limit of cargo, which crewmembers failed to secure properly.

The firm’s business practices are now under scrutiny. On the ill-fated April trip, the Sewol’s excess cargo was earning the company some 62 million won (the equivalent of $62,000 U.S. dollars). Since the beginning of the Sewol’s routine route along the western coast of South Korea in March 2013, the company has grossed approximately 3 billion won (2.9 million dollars) for the extra cargo hauled above the legal limit.

Lessons to Be Learned by All First responders and emergency managers around the world can learn a lot from the cultural aspects of the Sewol disaster. Culture defines the attitudes and responses of all persons and agencies involved in the risk management, disaster planning, emergency response, and disaster recovery phases. Culture can even define victim survival.

The lukewarm relationship between safety and expediency in the case of the Sewol disaster serves as a stern warning to all transportation authorities. Putting profits and deadlines ahead of adherence to safety regulations can lead to unsafe conditions, defects in equipment, and greater potential for loss of life. During the response phase, emergency responders also must be cognizant of the cultural aspects of those they are attempting to save. Although it may not be possible to change cultural attitudes, planners and responders can better manage disasters by considering the cultural attitudes and behaviors of all those involved during every phase of disaster planning, response, and recovery.

Julie Sorrell

Julie Sorrell is a biosecurity and disaster preparedness specialist in Springfield, Missouri. She is a member of the Community Emergency Response Team of the Greene County Office of Emergency Management (since 2008) and a member of the American Red Cross’s Disaster Assistance Team (2011-2012). She has an MA in political science and an MS in biosecurity. She also created the Countering Bioterrorism Blog in 2011 and “Bioterrorism Response for the First Responder,” a written text for teaching first responders about biological agents and bioterrorism response, in 2012.



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