Kyungmi Kim, Huffington Post Korea

photo: Telegraph

On the way back from my sister’s place in Busan, my mind is still clouded by the tragedy of ferry Sewol’s sinking. I anxiously keep checking news and Facebook feed, hoping to glimpse any heart-lifting updates only in vain.

“I did some thinking lately, and I have made up my mind. I am not sending Jihwan to cram schools anymore,” said my sister regarding her 12-year-old son. “Really?” “Yeah. For all these years, every time when Jihwan asked why he needed to learn grade 9 math while he was still grade 6, I would blindly repeat that he just had to study materials in advanceㅡ but I can see now that was just purely deluded of me. That is not how I wish to raise my child.”

She continued, “Watching that ferry submerging into cold water with 200 children on board, it occurred to me that raising children in this country could mean that I can always lose them at any time without even saying a proper goodbye.” Her voice was trembling. “What if I were to lose Jihwan so unexpectedly like that, and all that I had ever done for him was rotating him among cram schools and private tutors, leaving him exhausted on bed every night instead of spending more time to talk with him over the dinner table? I don’t think I could ever, ever forgive myself.”

“I want my son to discover plenty of opportunities in life that may lead him to more happiness rather than a higher letter grade; I want him to go watch movies with his dad, read all the books in libraries he wishes to read, enjoy family trips in the weekend…I have got only about 7 years until he graduates high school and leaves us, and all I wish for him is to be happy with us during that time period.”

Tears gathered in my eyes as I listened to her words. I complimented her courage to take up that decision, a decision which should naturally be a result of common sense, yet has somehow become an anomaly to practice in this crooked society: that 6 graders need to study just 6-grader-materials in school; that our children deserve leisure and fun rather than burdens imposed by the adults and sudden unexpected death.

Jihwan, my nephew who was gone for a 3-day-long youth camp, returned home that night. My sister happily announced his emancipation from extracurricular studies, which he found exhilarating. “One more thing,” she continued. “I got a message from your school board that your field trip next week has been cancelled.” “Yeah, I know. All my friends are blaming that captain.” “What?” “It’s because of that captain of the ferry we can’t go on a field trip, since the entire nation is now safety-paranoid, no? Bummer, this was supposed to be our first field trip in 13 years…” Jihwan muttered with disappointment.

“By the way auntie, apparently that captain was drying up a bundle of banknotes right after getting rescued. Did you see the news?” My sister and I could not find anything better to say to Jihwan. Of course, we had seen the news. We were too embarrassed, speechless by the shame of being a fellow Korean grownup of that corrupt captain, who were among the very first that evacuated the ship while abandoning all of his youthful passengers. “We’ve got a KakaoTalk chatting room for 49 of our classmates,” Jihwan added, “and we were just talking, maybe we should go set up a rally as well.”

We, the parents, should never
hand down this country to
our children as it is now.

Raising children in this country, I feel, is like holding a time bomb with no counts displayed on it. Nothing seems clear or safe, and it makes me terrified to think that we can lose people whom we love at anytime, anywhereㅡand this is not some chronically disaster-stricken, third world country, but the world’s 12th largest economy which boasts the fastest Internet and 4% annual GDP growth rate. The Sewol sinking crystallizes numerous dark secrets and ironies to which we have, somewhat successfully, turned a blind eye. It has exposed the bare truth of how ridiculously porous our public safety was, and how the whole system supporting it had been unforgivably rotten. We, the parents, should never hand down this country to our children as it is now.

The law must, of course, place the rightful responsibilities onto the cowardly captain and crews who escaped the ship with no slightest care of our ill-fated students and passengers; but we also need to recall that, out of 17 crew members who belonged to the engine room and deck, 12 were short-term(6 months average) contract workers with little maritime experiences. Why did the ferry company hire so many inexperienced, improperly trained contract workers for positions supposed to safeguard the lives of hundreds? And were the government regulators idly sitting back and watching all this happen under their noses, until everyone literally drowned to death?

Non-permanent workers are, by design, less committed to their work and responsibilities, let alone thorough work ethics or pride in what they do. Yet, our job market is flooded by these short-term employees and interns because of the inflexibility in hiring process and corporate greed. It is a no-brainer that when dangerous situations occur, they are more likely to selfishly exit out rather than relying on each other. It makes this country collectively resemble the sinking the Sewol, in which nobody seems to care about the safety of community as a whole.

How are we going to tackle the Korean ‘Risk Society’?

There should be no ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ when addressing this matter. The opposition party points fingers at the Lee administration back in 2012 for extending the passenger ship obsolescence waiver to 30-year maximum, which used to be 20-year. Though it seems to be a valid accusation, I have to ask: so what were the liberals doing when such demonic deregulation was taking place, which, according to their logic, eventually caused the ferry tragedy? I thank them for bringing this up no later, but why talk as if they always knew this was going to happen?

Instead of another meaningless political polarization, we need to bring about a real change. A change in our labor market in which a healthy balance of full-time and non-permanent workers is achieved; change in the government’s deregulation measures so that corporate savings will never compensate human lives; change in our safety system so the Korean citizens, when facing a nation-wide catastrophe, will be able to see the prompt risk analyses and problem solving executed, not our children helplessly drowning to the bottom of deep cold sea.

As I finish up this piece of writing, my train arrives at Seoul station. I imagine how excited all those children must have been had they safely arrived to beautiful Jeju Island unharmed. They would have sent their moms elated KakaoTalk messages saying, “I just got off the ship! Jeju, here I come!”
It is our solemn mission, given by none other than the children who passed away, to change this country.

A better country for those who survived. A safer and happier country for the next generation. Post-Sewol Korea is in our hands.

Byunghun

Byunghun

Founder, editor-in-chief