Please stop disappointing me, Korea

The South Korean ferry that sank last month, leaving more than 300 dead. (Photo from Wikipedia)

I’m still not over my sadness about the Sewol Ferry disaster. I have started checking the survivor number a little less frequently, clicking on the “search status” link less frequently, and thinking about the victims less frequently.

Now, I’m just waiting for Korea to stop disappointing me.

Normally, I am a proud Korean American who loves talking about all aspects of South Korea. Whether it’s K-pop, food, or lifestyle, I’m always more than willing to share what I know about my culture. The Gangnam Style craze? I was basically giving lectures on a daily basis.

Now I’m just embarrassed to talk about Korea.

But that won’t stop me from telling others of what is making me cringe every time I have a conversation about the Sewol ferry.

People around me here in Seattle know about the accident, but they don’t feel the same. When I talk to other Korean Americans or South Koreans, they reference the situation as if it’s their own, and I can relate.

My 16-year-old cousin Hyunji, who lives in Korea, could have also been on that ship.

I know that nothing in Korea is the same after the disaster. But here it’s almost worse, because nothing is different.

I wonder if I’m only doing harm by talking about what is actually happening in Korea, but it’s time to speak up and bring attention to the truth.

Disappointing media

Living in Seattle, news was the only source that I could rely on for the updates on the sinking.

The first article I ever read was that nine passengers were dead and the rest were okay.

But soon, the media exploded with stories of the number of people still trapped inside, the captain escaping before the passengers, and the inability of rescuers to reach the capsized ship. I saw the missing number go up to nearly 300 and couldn’t believe it.

I saw a reporter from SBS, a main Korea news outlet, smiling in between segments of a news report about Sewol, unaware that the camera was rolling.

I also saw a chief of KBS, one of the main news bureaus, say that if one compares the number of Sewol victims to the number of people killed in traffic accident deaths, it’s not actually a big number.

KBS was also criticized for leaving out the victims’ families’ complaints while keeping the applause the president got when she visited the families.

From talking to my Korean friends, we’ve come to a consensus that we can’t trust the media anymore on this matter. With no reliable sources of information, how can we relay the truth to our non-Korean friends?

A memorial in Korea for the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster, in a park near the Danwon High School, where most of the victims were students. (Photo from Wikipedia)
A memorial in Korea for the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster, in a park near the Danwon High School, where most of the victims were students. (Photo from Wikipedia)

Disappointing government

Since the ferry sunk, the Korea Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries has changed their  safety policies, implementing rules that should have existed prior to the disaster.

Now, stricter rules will be applied for checking passenger ID cards, the weight of cargo on the ship, and inspection of the ships.

Earlier this week, the president announced she’ll disband the Coast Guard, which botched the rescue operation.

President Park Geun-hye’s approval rating plummeted from nearly 70 percent to 40 percent following the incident. She and the prime minister have received continual complaints and hate from the public for the government’s handling of this situation.

Several politicians have been reprimanded for their actions and words. In one case a young son of a politician criticized the families of the deceased, and the public, for blaming the president and government officials for the incident.

Disappointing adults

You can hear many young Koreans saying that the incident was the “fault of adults.”

I agree with this statement fully, and can add a couple more things that the “adults” are doing wrong.

The students from Danwon High School who died on the ship were on the ferry for a field trip to Jeju Island. After this incident, all field trips across the nation were put to a stop. Why take away learning opportunities for students? As if field trips are the true source of danger, rather then irresponsible adults who allowed the tragedy to happen.

I can’t leave out the captain and the crew of the ship. After watching a recording of the conversations in the ship after it was already capsizing, it was horrifying to listen to the announcement repeated telling all the students to stay put. The students inside were confused and clueless of the danger they were in.

Recently, the captain, along with three other crewmembers, were charged with murder for the incident.

Celebrities and public figures in Korea were under heavy pressure to donate to the cause. But rather than waiting and applauding those who made the decision to help out, people only wondered publically how much this person would pay or how much that person should pay.

As a Korean American, this is extremely embarrassing. My parents even told me that they feel deeply ashamed of the decisions the adults were making in Korea.

Footage shot by a student aboard the Sewol Ferry

It’s not all bad

It’s true that most Koreans have been heart-felt and respectful in response to this terrible incident. Korea is a very homogenous country with a lot of ‘jeong,’ a term that means “the feeling of love and affection and attachment.” There isn’t an equivalent word in English.

The “Yellow Ribbon Campaign” established common symbol for all to express their sorrow toward the families and friends of the victims, and to spread awareness of the issue worldwide.

All TV shows were put to a stop during the first two-three weeks of the accident. People agreed that laughing and being entertained by the media was disrespectful at such a time of crisis

Over 1.8 million people visited a memorial of the ones who passed away, and thousands participated in protests against the government and in support of grieving families.

From Seattle, I feel powerless and helpless. I also feel privileged to be far away and not experience the immense sadness.

The best I can do is bring up the topic to a couple of my friends and tell them how many people are still missing when they ask me. I feel ashamed of my country and almost don’t even want to talk about it, because I know it will lessen people’s image and idea of Korea. But that is not a valid excuse.

I don’t want the tragedy to be forgotten here.

There needs to be a more worldwide attention on the crooked and failed government, media, and adults in Korea who were at fault for this incident.

I want to be proud of my culture and roots. Please stop disappointing me, Korea.


  1. Well written and nicely said! I agree that the whole horrible situation was not at all handled well by the media. I heard firsthand all the rumors flying around my school, and even though I wanted to know what was really happening, it was so hard. I wish that disasters like these would lead to better safety measures, but it’s really hard to say.

    My heart still goes out to all the families and victims. I’ve never felt so close to a disaster, and even though I’m not Korean, I can’t stop imagining them as my students.

  2. Just remember, ingrained in the K psyche, the importance of savings face. Handling large scale disasters is still relatively new their. Until recently, people attributed much to the fate of heaven. It will take a bit of training to master the US approach to prevention and rescue operations. Even so, it’s not a perfect art or science. No doubt, they’ll research better methods and use them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.