I think there is a proper time for shame. One such time was Thursday, April 16, 2015, which marked the one-year anniversary of the Sewol ferry disaster in which 304 people, including 250 high school students, drowned to their death in the cold waters off the southwestern coast of South Korea.
The tragedy shook the nation to its core. The entire junior class of Dawon High School had boarded the Sewol for a school trip to Jeju Island, a popular travel destination. These students were only a year away from the high school exit exam that would set their fate for further education and, arguably, their careers. They stood on the cusp of taking their first adult strides into their hopes and dreams they had imagined for years. Alongside them, for all those years, parents, teachers, and others had invested into their education and upbringing. When those children drowned, many of their parents most likely lost their only child.
The tragedy, however, goes beyond the sheer number of young persons who died. The navigational error that led to the sinking and the botched rescue efforts were specific failures that, upon further investigation, stemmed from systemic ills such as corrupt networks between private shipping companies and coastal security agencies. In a touch of added cruelty to the victims, the only people to escape on the first rescue vessel to arrive were the captain and his crew. The students were repeatedly told by the crew minutes before to remain where they were.
In the following months, parents and supporters from across the nation demanded a full investigation and an explanation from the government. Eventually, the National Assembly passed laws allowing them to get financial compensation from the government. Joo-min Park, the lawyer who had been advocating for the parents, said in response, “In front of the family members pleading and crying out for truth, the government just waved some money.”
Amidst a spate of violence and assault stories that swept through Korean news at the turn of the year, including a horrific child abuse case at a daycare center and the infamous “nut rage” incident aboard a Korean Air flight, columnist Seok-chun Kwon pointed out in an op-ed for Joongang Daily that in all these incidents, the perpetrators expressed no public shame. In fact, they were vindictive and unyielding, claiming they had pure intentions and some even blaming the victims. He writes, “there prevails in Korean society a mindset that one must not feel ashamed and, at the very least, one must look the part and do what it takes to rise through the food chain.” This, he says, is the world that we were thrusting our children into and the same one that had let our children so tragically die. Pad your resume with certificates, volunteer hours, and extracurricular activities; get plastic surgery to pass the interview. In short, look the part, don’t be ashamed of yourself, do what it takes to succeed.
I hope it doesn’t stay this way.
To borrow from what C.S. Lewis wrote in “Men Without Hearts,” an essay in the book, The Abolition of Man, I sincerely hope we do not become people without hearts. Lewis warns against a modern society that endorses a strictly relativistic and intellectual judgment of morals and virtues. Such an understanding of virtue instructs people to discard a reliance on feelings and creates what he calls “men [and women] without chests.” These are people devoid of any “just sentiments” about what is right or wrong. We must not fall into what Lewis calls the “slumber of cold vulgarity,” where we foolishly trust only in our own intellect and reason to claw our way to claim personal honor and success.
A year on, the heavy price we paid in the lives of our young children still burdens the hearts of numerous Koreans hoping for meaningful change. In that hope, we must foster deep and true sentiments for what is right. In the face of wrong in which we have a share of the implications, I hope Koreans—and people of other societies alike in their own contexts of crisis— feel a sense of shame. A shame that I hope will not linger, but will shake us from our “slumber of cold vulgarity” into compassionate responsiveness and into solidarity and shared responsibility.
Kwon, Seok-Chun, “The World After the Sewol Ferry Disaster.” Joongang Daily. January 19, 2015. http://article.joins.com/news/article/article.asp?total_id=16962709. Quotation translated by the author.
Lewis, Clive Staples. The Abolition of Man. Zondervan, 2001.
Greg Kim (’14) graduated with a BA in history and international relations. He lived in Grand Rapids for a year and has since moved back to South Korea to fulfill his mandatory military service.