The Failure of the South Korean National Security State: The Sewol Tragedy in the Age of Neoliberalism [The Asia-Pacific Journal]

The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 12, Issue 40, No. 1, October 6, 2014.

Jae-Jung Suh

The Sewol ferry carrying 476 passengers including a group of high school students on a field trip to Jeju Island capsized on April 16, 2014, and sank to the bottom of the sea off Korea’s southern coast. Most of the crew, including the captain, were rescued by the Korean coast guard. Some of the passengers, who happened to be on the deck or escaped soon after the capsizing, were saved by fishing boats and commercial vessels that came before the ROK Coast Guard or Navy. 304 passengers, however, were trapped inside and drowned.

On September 21, Japan’s Fuji TV broadcast a program that reconstructed a heart-wrenching tragedy of the Sewol’s sinking on the basis of survivors’ testimonies and footage from recovered cell phones. One of the survivors states “I hope the coverage [by the Japanese media] helps shed light on why this happened and who was at fault,” alluding to the lack of adequate coverage by the Korean media.

The ship’s sinking may seem an unfortunate accident, the operation to save the passengers a heroic drama enacted in seas, and the passengers’ death its tragic ending. Once the surface is scratched, however, a complicated picture emerges. The Sewol sank under the weight of the neoliberal state that diminished its role in safety regulation and oversight. The rescue operation was weighed down by an irresponsible state that relegated its responsibility to a private salvage firm. When questions arose about the state’s responsibility, however, it was not shy about mobilizing its resources to evade and deny responsibility. The whole tragedy serves as a reminder of how neoliberal deregulation and privatization puts people’s safety and life at risk through processes of state collusion with business interests and how a powerful national security state may fail to protect its own people from internal dangers it helps create…

…The accident serves as a vivid reminder of what tragic consequences can result from government-business collusion. While collusion had existed under previous authoritarian regimes that sometimes sacrificed people’s safety for profits, the Sewol incident reveals that the nature of the collusion shifted to give more power to business interests. The authoritarian developmental state shed some of its power as part of the IMF-imposed structural adjustment after the 1997 financial crisis. As the government transferred some of its power to plan, manage, and oversee the economy to private entities, its relative power gradually declined. By the time of the Sewol disaster, the government took a hands-off approach to overseeing such “private” entities as the KRS. Privatized entities with increasing boldness ignored government directives and warning, and became more independent and aggressive in pushing their agenda…

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