Is Korean culture to blame for the Sewol tragedy?

Photo credit: Getty Images

Photo credit: Getty Images

By Jae-Ha Kim
April 26, 2014

More than 300 passengers — the majority of them students and faculty members of the Danwon High School in South Korea — are dead or missing after the Sewol ferry crashed and sank on April 16. Since then, media coverage has been intense, focusing on the cowardly and criminal act of the captain — who literally jumped ship — and eulogizing the brave young crew members who risked their own lives (and died), while tending to the passengers.

But because that’s just not compelling enough, the news has taken another approach, questioning whether Korean culture is to blame for the deaths.

That’s right. Let’s blame culture.

Ralph De La Cruz of the Dallas Morning News wrote:

Here in the United States, it’s hard to imagine that, first of all, a bunch of high school kids would even listen, much less totally and faithfully comply with an adult’s instructions – even as a ship sinks.

That’s because we Americans – and certainly Texans – value the individual over the group. If that was a boatload of American students, you know they would have been finding any and every way to get off that ferry. But in Asian cultures, which place the needs of the group over the needs of the individual, compliance is de rigueur.

So, you end up with this horrendous death by obedience.

And Kyung Lah — who I used watch on the evening news in Chicago — did this report for CNN:

Cultural values in South Korea possibly played a role in why so many people remained below deck when a ferry sank off the coast of South Korea, an accident that killed 29 people and left nearly 270 missing.

The questioning of culture in situations like this is an easy way out. It’s a way of “reporting” news to people who know little about other cultures and therefore won’t question what has been written. Mr. De La Cruz speaks with authority about how this tragedy was “death by obedience” and how this wouldn’t have happened if the passengers had been American teenagers.

He knows this how? He doesn’t. He’s making unqualified assumptions.

Think about the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. The children that followed the teachers’ orders and hid in the closet all survived.  Yes, they were younger than the Danwon students and one could argue that elementary-age children would be more likely to be obedient than older kids.

But then what about the adults who perished in the Twin Towers during 9/11?  Would more people have survived the terrorist attacks had they made the decision to escape, rather than stay put in their offices as they were advised to do? And would any of us dare blame the victims, or American culture, for their lost lives?

Announcements that the building was “secure” may have led to the deaths of hundreds of people. After American Airlines Flight 11 hit the north tower, fire safety officials for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operated the Trade Center, broadcast several announcements over the public-address system that the south tower was safe and that workers did not need to evacuate. Many who were leaving the south tower turned back when they heard them.  (source: USA Today)

These were adults well versed in critical thinking who did as they were told, because there was no reason, at the time, to believe that they shouldn’t.

So the question remains: When do you follow authority guidance?  It seems like if you do and it works out, you’re a heroic survivor. But if you do, and it doesn’t work, then it’s your own fault for following orders.

The victims of Sewol didn’t succomb to “death by obedience.” They perished because the ship sank. There was chaos. The captain didn’t do enough to keep his passengers safe. If the captain hadn’t issued the order to remain on the ship and the students started jumping overboard, there may have been more survivors. We don’t know. What we do know is that some of the students died saving the lives of others. They were told to put on their lifejackets, but some took theirs off to give them to classmates. They jumped into the water to save others. These were not lemmings. They were scared, confused children.

If passengers defied his orders and started looking for alternatives, as  De La Cruz of the Dallas Morning News brags that American kids would have done, what then? If they went to the boat’s tilted side looking for lifeboats, the rafts would’ve already been submerged in water. So were they to climb to the top of the ship and somehow try to deploy the lifeboats themselves?

The lack of crew onboard who knew what to do isn’t about Korean culture. It’s about a company that didn’t train its staff enough for emergencies. And, unfortunately, this is a universal problem.

The question of culture arose again when Danwon’s vice principal Kang Min Kyu committed suicide after being rescued from the ferry. Because he had planned the excursion, he said (in his suicide note) that he felt responsible for the children’s deaths. Some reporters theorized that this was normal in Asian culture to commit suicide when you’ve lost face. I’m not going to argue that suicide isn’t a problem in Korea.

But then in the same articles, they mention disgraced captain, Lee Joon-seok — who clearly didn’t try to kill himself. Why would culture affect one man but not the other? Could individualism possibly have something to do with how each man reacted to the tragedy?

The Western media has a tendency to fixate on whether culture was part of the problem when things happen in Asia. Like there’s some ancient Chinese secret that Asians utilize at will.

In his New York Times bestseller “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that Korean culture was largely to blame for Korean Air’s 1997 crash. When Asiana (another Korean airline) crashed in 2013, many reporters quoted Gladwell and his book to again point the finger at Korean culture.

Ask A Korean took apart Gladwell’s theory in his excellent blog post here. What AAK says about culture and culturalism holds true with the Sewol tragedy as well:

The danger of culturalism is made plain. Culturalism may not be the same thing as racism, but they share the same parent: the instinct to connect race or ethnicity to some kind of indelible essence. Because culturalism and racism are two streams from the same source, the harms caused by culturalism are remarkably similar to those caused by racism.

Like racism, culturalism puts a large group of people beyond rational understanding. No sane person would be willing to die for the sake of keeping up with manners–yet that is precisely what Malcolm Gladwell would have you believe about the 75 million Koreans around the world.

We don’t know all the details about the Sewol tragedy yet. But, ask yourself this: What do you think your 15-year-old son or daughter would’ve done in this situation? Would they have defied a Captain’s order and jumped overboard into icy cold water? Or does it seem more likely that  — like most children worldwide — they would have assumed that the Captain knew what he was doing? At the time, they had no reason to believe that the ferry would sink as quickly as it did or that they were in imminent danger.

When my husband and I took a cruise a decade or so ago, we sailed through Indonesia’s seas — which have been described as the world’s most dangerous waters.  There were two times when the passengers were warned to return to their cabins, lock the doors and remain there until further notice. One time was because there were pirates surrounding the ship.

I was born in Korea and spent my early years in Seoul. My non-Korean husband was born and raised in the United States where he was never indoctrinated with Korean anything. We were adults who weren’t afraid to question authority and we both reacted the same way: We went into our cabin, locked our door and remained there until further notice. Which, we found out later, is what the rest of the passengers — almost all of whom were predominantly American or European adults — did, too.

The Sewol tragedy was horrific. There will be more reports coming as more bodies are discovered.

Shame on those who are second guessing the actions of the panicked young victims, who did the best that they could in a frightening situation.

© JAE-HA KIM | All Rights Reserved  

(This post is one of my most popular on Tumblr, with more than 700 reblogs so far…)

Comments (60)

  1. Kathryn says:

    Great points as usual, JaeHa!

  2. Heidi says:

    That is so well written and well thought out! I had heard this absurd theory before and had no idea how to respond with any eloquence.

  3. Lopker says:
  4. Natasha N says:

    Being in the cruise industry.. I 100% agree Jae. Of course most people will listen to a Captain’s orders. The Korean Culture theory is absurd. Such a tragedy indeed..may they all rest in Peace.

  5. Whitney says:

  6. jaye says:

    I think those kids could have gotten off the ship. I’m a mother myself, born and raised in America I myself was taught to do what I thought was right. I would have jumped off the ship. Considering that the ship was sinking there were other boats surrounding the ship, so being in the water for long wouldn’t have crossed my mind but dying would have. It’s asad thing how they wasted alot of time doing nothing.

    • Bob Johnson says:

      I’m a dad, and I know you’d like to think that your kids would be the brilliant ones who knew which way to go without direction and how to launch the emergency life rafts without assistance and how to survive when everyone else was not going to.

      The reality of this type of situation is that it’s complete chaos and the surroundings are unfamiliar. There weren’t a bunch of ships waiting nearby, the crew took awhile to request emergency assistance. The crew, which is trained in this type of emergency, gave instructions. In that situation everyone, even Americans and adults, follow the lead of those trained to handle the emergency.

      If you think any component of Korean culture is responsible for this you are wrong. American kids are taught from their first day in school how to follow fire/earthquake/tornado drill instructions. It’s ingrained in our kids that in an emergency there will be an adult to give instructions. This kids are just that, the same kids that you raised and did drills just like in American schools. None of them knew what to do in the case of a ship emergency. They trusted the captain and crew to know how to properly respond.

      The captain and many of his crew were cowards who failed to perform the duties they were trained to perform. They failed to do their jobs and it cost these poor children and adults their lives.

      It’s not a cultural issue.

  7. Jenny L says:

    Thank you for posting this!

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read this, Jenny!

      • Jenny says:

        Of course. I even shared it! I hope more people read articles like this rather than the ones that make it sound like those poor students would have survived had it not been for their misfortune of having been raised in the Korean culture.

  8. jaehi says:

    I love your logic. I love how clearly and concisely you break down the culture theory. You would make a GREAT attorney!

  9. eunoiair says:

    Children here are also taught to always do what their teacher tells them. It almost sounds like they’re blaming them for their own deaths 🙁 🙁

  10. April Oh Yoon says:

    Excellent and well written post Jae ha!!! It’s maddening that there’s a tinge of “blaming the victim” in some of the articles I’ve been reading. Poor poor children. My heart breaks for them and their parents.

  11. meandthecitylights says:

    Shame on everyone who thinks blaming victims is okay.

  12. cumbersome-cucumber says:

    Are you fucking shitting me

  13. Paul Michals says:


    Thank you for your article

    The accident was maritime. The passengers’ ethnicity or culture has NOTHING to do with the tragedy.

    The ability to exit any ferry is not easy in any at sea condition. The ability to move around on a ship with even a moderate list is difficult. My knowledge of at sea condition comes from both time spent at sea on U.S Naval vessels and time traveling with my wife as passengers of commercial vessels & ferries of varying size and capacities.

    All passengers boarding any vessel understand that is their responsibility to listen and follow orders give by the ship’s officers and crew. The passengers are not asked to evaluate orders given to them; only to follow the order.

    Mr. Ce La Cruz’s statement that being an American or a Texan would have provide the passengers with an ability to evaluate orders given to them better then other people is baseless.

    Paul Michals
    Austin, TX

  14. rihammond says:

    Jae-ha Kim, sewol ferry, Korea, culturalism,

  15. Kim Jaehwa says:

    Wonderful article. Victim blaming is beyond reprehensible. These people who are blaming Korean culture are the same ones who think Asians are passive, blacks are thugs, and Latinos are lazy.

    • jenni says:

      My white husband is near perfect except being so passive. He blaims his personality. As an Asian wife living in US, I blaim American culture to make anyone lazy. Who is the first lady not to mention her family? Racism and Culturalism and Stereotyingism must exit this earth if people seek peace!

  16. Jin says:

    You have applied in a worng situation.
    It is not about culture issues
    It is about how to follow trained leader in a emergency situation

  17. John Bocskay says:

    I agree completely. One of the ironies of these sorts of cultural explanations for tragedies is that the expert commenters often have a poor understanding of the culture they are critiquing, and this seems especially true of neo-Confucianism, which they imagine to be nothing more than a system that demands mindless compliance by juniors to seniors without any reciprocal obligation from the top down. I’ve written a piece on this that I’d like to share and which has been making the rounds over the weekend, which asks why nobody is asking why the Captain and his superiors were not more Confucian, and instead prefer the default narrative: that Koreans are hapless victims of a defective cultural impulse:

  18. Dave says:

    This post is taking down a straw man.

    There *IS* a cultural aspect, but it has nothing to do with the children or obedience to authority. The problem is Korean *business* culture.

    Consider all the relevant factors leading to the disaster before the ship even set sail:
    – cargo/cars not tied down
    – ship past 20 year age limit
    – ship tonnage increased twice in its life (affects stability)
    – crew never drilled in disaster prep
    – crew didn’t read manual

    Entirely separate from the captain and the children, there is a clear pattern of managerial negligence which sacrifices professional rigor for short-term profit.

    It is that management culture (or lack thereof) which truly is culpable for this disaster.

    • Sarah Windsor says:

      I’m not sure what your point is Dave. The point of the news articles that ran recently blamed Korean culture in general for the students listening to the captain and not making up their own minds to jump overboard or try to escape before they drowned on the ship. They said that it’s part of Korean culture for children to do everything that their elders tell them to do. The point of this article is that this isn’t the case.

  19. Rather die than face the shame

  20. areinjis says:

    International news always says something stupid especially frm cnn… Similar with case MH370, alwys blame malaysia for something stupid n try blame the religion that caused the excident occur… Shame wth them… Prayforsewolferry….

  21. secondcitymom says:

    Can’t believe people think Asians would “think” that way in times of survival. I will read your post shortly.

  22. Sonja Swanson says:

  23. noellecruz says:

    It’s so frustrating that people would think this. Having lived in Korea for 2 years, I know that was not the case.

  24. Catherine says:

    I normally hate reading Sewol articles because I find it depressing and unnecessary but I loved your column and shared it with my friends!(:

  25. yunamei says:

    I agree to some extent the media has grossly misrepresented the tragedy. However, to some degree, the mannerism the passenger displayed did associate with culture but it’s not all that is to blame. It was mostly the human error caused by the captain and crew members that led to the death of innocent people.

    As for 9/11, the people inside were given evidence that the building was secure. As for Sewol, many of the students knew the ship was sinking but waited for the next step of the procedure. Chaos began when the water started flowing in and many could not escape. While they were desperately finding the exit, the captain and crew already escaped and the passenger perished. These two tragedies are very different, please do not try to correlate them together.

    The first distress call was by a student who took the initiative to call for help instead of waiting (unfortunately he did not escape). The word ‘obediance’ may be poor terminology to describe the mannerism but its rather respect and faith of the captain and crew members judgement that help was on its way. Otherwise, there would be no reason to stay put on the ferry.

    You have to remember that respect, honor, and shame are 3 important qualities the korean people value. The vice principal was over ridden by guilt and self-shame that he committed suicide. To him, the pain of shame was more powerful then continuing his life. You also have to acknowledge that Korean students also commit suicide in their high school life from the pressure to succeed in the real world. Hence, statistically, S.K is ranked of the top most suicidal country “Suicide” is not a treated as a trend but it’s becoming acceptable to the eye of many people. As for the reason why the captain did not commit suicide, we don’t know. He was apprehended immediately after his escape so we do not know if he has the intention of taking his own life if he was not under the watchful eye of the police.

    Individualism is lacking in S.K, it is a homogeneous society that believes the value of success. To achieve this, there is a growing surge of competition and pressure among students to enter one of the elite college. (This is why students are put under immense stress to the point that their life is not worth it.) In America, people have the freedom and choice to defy, protest, or argue against authority. In Korea, it is viewed as shameful. With this in mind, it is hard to say that culture barely was part of this disaster. The korean media, government, and rescue force. They are all questionable on the way the country function as a whole. There is still a disconnection with the government and it’s people and it’s becoming prevalent that the issue is being uncovered by it the native people.

    From his point on, change will be most prominent. The Sewol tragedy should have never occurred. Too many innocent people died for no reason. Yet, the disaster unraveled the problems the country face socially.

    • Peter Santos says:

      You said: “As for 9/11, the people inside were given evidence that the building was secure. As for Sewol, many of the students knew the ship was sinking but waited for the next step of the procedure. Chaos began when the water started flowing in and many could not escape. While they were desperately finding the exit, the captain and crew already escaped and the passenger perished. These two tragedies are very different, please do not try to correlate them together.”

      What are you talking about? This article says nothing about the two tragedies being the same. What it says is that even adults listened to what they were told and remained put. The point is that culture has nothing to do with children listening to a person in authority: the captain and his crew. Children listen to people in authority, period. They’re taught it from Day 1.

      And the minute you said this, ““Suicide” is not a treated as a trend but it’s becoming acceptable to the eye of many people,” I knew that you were full of shit. Suicide is NOT becoming acceptable in the eyes of anyone, in Korea or elsewhere.

  26. gokimmigo says:

    I hadn’t even thought of this. But it’s a very good point.

  27. Fuck culturalism and people who attempt to use it this way. As a crisis is happening, people are people who will act in the same way any person would. A scared Korean teen and a scared American teen will act as scared teenagers. The idea that some people are trying to say Korean culture created the high death toll is disgusting. If you are sincerely worried that you are going to die, you will do what you can to survive (that’s what the captain did, after all). But if you don’t completely comprehend the situation you will probably trust the authority. As an American teen who actually has a problem with authority (according to my parents), I will tell you that in that situation I would have stayed put too, trusting that the people in charge to know more about what was going on, trusting that the captain and his crew would know how to act and that there couldn’t be such an awful disaster on a fairly routine trip. The problem here is not, in any way, the children’s fault. Their culture did not impact their decision to trust the authorities. Even trying to say something as abhorrent as that it was the terrified high school students’ fault, that American high schoolers would not have died… it is beyond my comprehension that one could even think that, but especially that they could write it, and their editors would let it though. Blame goes on the cowardly captain and his mates and lack of emergency training for the crew. But do not blame this on the children. That is the act of an ignorant, racist monster. Fuck culturalism.

  28. gotmyheartinseoul says:

    Will definitely read it when I get home!~

  29. jaeun2 says:

    I have been crying every morning watching snippets of korean news and reports about culture are just so out of place and out of touch. How about more like poor safety, emergency response and communication protocols.. sigh.. And I will definitely go and read this!

  30. bunniexoxo says:

    The whole thing is just heartbreaking. It’s a terrible tragedy regardless of who or what is to blame. 🙁 I’ll definitely check out ur article. The recent insinuations in certain media outlets about Korean culture having something to do with this is infuriating! Loved ur blogpost btw! So well written!

  31. littlebitbrit says:

    Seriously ridiculous

  32. Roboseyo Ouwehand says:
  33. bmag says:

  34. eskeemo says:

    Some of us still think culture is wrapped in it. See Korea Herald’s version, touting culture.

    • Sam Mendas says:

      From the Korea Herald link you posted:

      :: As for Korea’s Confucian tradition and its emphasis on obeying the authorities that is often cited in the West as a root of Korean society’s many ills, including accidents and disasters, Korea University’s Park offers a different interpretation.

      Positing that while problems such as the Sewol ferry disaster may indeed have emerged because of the authoritarianism that prevails in society, Park said authoritarianism in the negative sense ― i.e. Confucian, imperial, patriarchal authorities ― that have been pervasive in Korean society for a long time is now no more.

      “Korea seems to have succeeded in overthrowing the ‘old authoritarianism’ in the process of democratization and during the 1997 Asian financial crisis,” he said. ::

      Doesn’t sound like they’re touting anything, culture or otherwise.

      • eskeemo says:

        Mr. Mendes,

        First sentence, second paragraph: “Positing that while problems…may indeed have emerged because of authoritarianism…,” is admission.

        My father (both of my parents are Korean immigrants), after I explained the blog letter above and the Korea Herald article, said, “As long as there is Korean military [conscription], there is authoritarianism, Confucianism, and both.” He meant to say that it starts there and remains. He is also skeptical about Professor Park’s final analysis. My parents travel to Korea often and say that the mindset has changed, but not that much. Only infrastructure has changed.

  35. Charlene Melcher says:

    Such s loss to the world.Precious jewels.

  36. Taya says:

    I remember when they tried to blame korean culture for the asiana 214 crash

  37. Denise Adams says:

    Nice article. Personally I think business culture (shortcutting to save money and the crew not doing what they should have been trained to do in the first place) along with the idea, whoever responds to an incident (in asian cultures like China and Korea) is many times found liable even if they didn’t create the issue. The buck (responsibility) was passed between different agencies in korea over who should assist until it was too late. There were fishing boats ready to help and the boats were told to wait by the different authorities in korea.

  38. What that bigot wrote makes me want to vomit.

  39. Francisca Susanto says:

    I can’t believe it’s been a year. Those poor kids

  40. For one, I’m offended that they would say that about Americans. We’re not all selfish and lazy and there still is a belief that one should do good for the many.
    For second, and most important, blaming ones culture is so stupid. Especially since it’s the idea that the good of the many go above the good of the one. Which is a perfectly fine way to think and very admirable. The culture is not something to blame from this tragedy. It’s not to blame is large majority of situations I can think of.

  41. Nancie S. Martin says:

    Powerful piece, Jae.

  42. Y Lee says:

    sorry choking back tears of anger and frustration. what the actual fuck.


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