Relatives of missing passengers visit the area where the ferry sank off Byeongpung island. Photo: AFP

Culture of obedience scrutinized following Korean ferry disaster

As the scale of the Sewol ferry disaster inexorably expands, the nation faces a difficult question: Did an aspect of Korea's social culture contribute to the high death toll?

As the scale of the Sewol ferry disaster inexorably expands, the nation faces a difficult question: Did an aspect of Korea's social culture contribute to the high death toll?

Some commentators wonder whether the behaviour of high school students aboard - who obeyed dubious orders given by the ship's crew to remain in place, even as the ship listed steeply and water flooded in - was a symptom of a hierarchical culture in which young people are taught to obey authority figures without question.

It's a mindset prized in the military and many companies. But the Sewol disaster has some youth rethinking the value of such strict obedience.

Survivor accounts indicate that orders not to move were instrumental in the high number of missing. Those who ignored the orders, took personal initiative and reached open decks were the ones who survived.

While children from any culture might well obey orders in such an unfamiliar and terrifying situation, one expert says Korean teenagers are particularly conditioned to do so.

"Korean teenagers are very accustomed to being told what to do and what to think," said Mike Breen, Seoul-based author of . "Chances are, it was the naughty ones who disobeyed."

A senior teacher at one school said modern students increasingly engaged in independent thought, a break from the past and a trend this disaster would likely encourage.

"Students in the old days had to follow whatever teachers and adults said, [but] nowadays this is easing," said Lee Yoon-hee, 57, of Seoul's Homaesil High School. "It is normal to obey, but it depends on the situation."

There was intense discussion about the situation among students at Seoul's Jangwon Middle School, where some children vowed not to listen to teachers or authority figures if they were to find themselves in a situation similar to that on the Sewol."It is natural to obey," said 16-year-old Ma Yoo-jin. "But not in this kind of disaster."

Korea's recent ultra-fast economic development has granted the nation an impressive carapace of new "hardware". But some "software", such as safety processes, has yet to catch up.

"Ferry tragedy could have been avoided," asserted the in an editorial decrying the country's safety record and practices.

"With rapid economic development some things moved to a world-class level while others remain to be dealt with, and attitudes to safety are one of them," said Breen. "Koreans build some of the world's most sophisticated ships, but don't have proper safety procedures and don't instil a sense of responsibility in the crew. The public address system is telling people to stay in their bunks while the captain and his lieutenants flee the ship."

Coast Guard officials confirmed on Wednesday that Captain Lee Joon-seok had departed the ship 32 minutes after the incident. A crewmember told Associated Press that for 30 minutes, Lee had attempted to right the listing ship, during which time passengers were instructed not to move. When efforts failed, Lee and his crew abandoned ship - without, apparently, ordering a general evacuation.

These two pieces of information suggest Lee left his ship just two minutes after efforts to right it failed.

One of the least pleasant aspects of Korean corporate culture - the evasion of responsibility by senior executives, who habitually arrive for court appearances in hospital garb and wheel-chairs to win sympathy - also appeared to be in evidence.

According to local media, the president of Cheonghaejin Marine, the company that owned the Sewol , was en route to the disaster site when he collapsed "with shock" and was hospitalised in an undisclosed location.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Disaster focuses attention on culture of obedience