Owning Our Pain


(source: vop.co.kr)

The bus departed Gwanghwamun Square at midnight and arrived at Paengmok Harbor  the next morning at 6 am. The simple horizon was stark against the fragmented landscape of skyscrapers I left behind in Seoul. As I gazed into the still horizon, memories of the tragedy reawakened. Unconsciously, I imagined the Sewol ferry upside down in the waters before me. I remembered the photograph of the water-swollen body of Jung Dongsu, a Danwon high school victim, reluctantly disclosed to the public by his father during the first hearing at Seoul YMCA. In Korea, it is said that when a parent loses a child, she/he buries that child in her/his heart. Dongsu’s father told the National Assembly members that he could not yet bury his child in his heart and begged them to help him do so. Two years have passed, and little has been investigated. The Special Investigation Committee, entrusted to uncover the truth, is about to lose its legally protected status as the National Assembly is claiming that its period of investigation should end in June.

Despite the president’s promise two years ago, the National Assembly has refused to endorse the Special Investigation Committee’s request for a Special Prosecutor to investigate the tragedy. Yet, now, with the ruling party losing its majority in the general election, there is hope that the committee’s requests might be considered in the new 20th National Assembly. However, the hurdles still seem high; and the truth, distant. The coastal waters remind me of a harsh truth: nine bodies are still missing. They appear so close, as if they were right below the water’s surface, but I can’t reach them.

My trip to Paengmok Harbor helped me see the two simultaneous yet conflicting realities at play in Korean society: the one that remembers the tragedy, and the other that chooses not to. Though pain is deeply present in our daily life, we ignore it because we have learned to be indifferent, ignorant, and numb to the pain of others. Yet, when we examine that pain, we learn our pains are interconnected. When we zoom out, we realize they are all part of a greater pain society has created. The Sewol ferry tragedy exposed the darkest shadow of Korean state-capitalism: A man-made disaster that deprived Korean society of human dignity and the right to peace. Some may say they do not see how the Sewol tragedy relates to ”all“ people in Korea. It is a sad but isolated incident that matters only to those who were directly acquainted with the victims and their families, a “freak accident” and nothing more. However, when we look at the ways in which the government responded (or failed to respond) immediately after the accident, we realize we are only one step away from the reality of the Sewol victims: thus, all of us are victims of the Sewol ferry tragedy.

Korea is a country where its citizens have suffered a deep level of inhumane treatment and psychological violence for years under dictatorship for the sake of lightning speed economic development. Though Korea might seem like a “developed” country, equipped with the highest speed internet connection, Samsung electronics, and a global pop culture scene, the complete failure of President Park and her regime in responding to the Sewol ferry tragedy exposes the true consequence of the country’s hasty development in the past few decades. Furthermore, the deeply oppressive social structure of Korea has normalized disaster in our everyday lives.

The Sewol Ferry tragedy leaves us with “what ifs.” What if Lee Myeong-bak, the previous president, had not deregulated the shipping industry? His “small government” policy strengthened the private sector by decentralizing state control. In 2009, it increased the working age of ships from 20 to 30 years. This made it possible for Yu Byeong-Eun, former Semo group chairman, to buy a ship retired in Japan and transform it into the Sewol ferry in Korea. What if the Sewol ferry staff hadn’t told passengers to “stay still” twelve times within the first hour of sinking? The second hearing revealed this kept passengers inside the ferry during the ”golden time“ that would have allowed them to escape. Passengers - who would have escaped into the ocean if only they had not been told to “stay still” - were deprived of their right to be rescued. The second hearing also brought public attention to the covert relationship between the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and the Sewol ferry. It turned out that NIS was directly involved in purchasing and maintaining the Sewol ferry. Such findings confirm that the government bears ultimate responsibility for the tragedy, and can’t combat the legitimate criticism that it prioritized financial benefit over the safety of its citizens. The Sewol ferry tragedy, which resulted in the death of 304 people, most of which were high school students on a school field trip, is far from a personal story. Living under a regime that views human life so insignificantly, it could easily have happened to anyone in Korea – and could continue to happen.

State-capitalism has generated a culture of numbness, ignorance, and indifference to the pain of others. Students must climb up an endless academic-professional ladder to obtain financial success. They develop no critical perspective of history and suffer from social distress. Social distress makes not only youth, but adults, insensitive to the pain of others. This lack of sensitivity makes us forget that the victims of the tragedy are one of us. I had thought I had no right to cry for the victims, because I was not a part of their families. Over time, as I processed my indifference as a way of dealing with my discomfort about the tragedy, I came to realize that all sorts of feelings - sad, guilt, longing, futility, resentment – had been present within me. There is no ownership in empathetic feelings, because feelings cross physical, psychological and spiritual boundaries. My friend Lalita Yawangsan, who visited the Paengmok Harbor with me, convinced me of the power of empathy. Although she has encountered tens of cases of family loss and bereavement while serving as an NGO worker with migrant communities in her country for over a decade, she shed tears that embraced the pain of the victims. Seeing her and recalling the moment I confronted my indifference to the tragedy, I realized that empathy is something that never runs out. The more it is cultivated, the deeper it grows, and the wider it spreads.

written by Jeong-in Hwang (MAINS, Sungkonghoe University)

[Note: The viewpoint expressed in this article is not necessarily that of the International Strategy Center.]


416참사 2014년도 결과보고서: 온마음리포트(11) ‘416 참사관련 장기적 심리지원을 위한 의료인류학적 기초연구’

Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein