For more than three weeks, the world’s attention has been focused on the South Korean coast as divers look for bodies in a ferry lying on the ocean floor.
Thanks to the divers’ efforts, fewer than 40 people were still missing and 269 were confirmed dead this week. Who can fathom the pain and anguish of the victims’ families as they rode a roller coaster of hope and despair waiting for reports?
I was shocked when I read that the ferry’s captain told passengers to remain on the boat when it began tilting, took more than half an hour to order an evacuation, and then, when the first rescue boats arrived, fled to safety himself. He left more than 300 passengers trapped on the vessel. Such barbarity as a captain should be unbelievable. Yet it’s familiar to me.
On the morning of June 25, 1950, then South Korean President Syngman Rhee did something similar when he heard that 95,000 North Koreans with 150 Russian tanks were breaking through the 38th parallel. Through the radio, Rhee ordered citizens not to fret, not to abandon their properties in haste, but to stay calm. The South Korean army, he said, was handling the “border attack” as best as it could. Four days later the communists entered Seoul.
Dismayed citizens learned that their president had fled to the town of Suwon south of the Han River in an unmarked vehicle, along with his cabinet members. He ordered the military to blow up the Han Bridge as soon as they crossed it.
Today, 19 bridges over the Han River link the capital to its southern suburbs, creating a scenic view, but back in 1950, there were only three, including a railroad bridge. The bridge had been packed with refugees running for their lives, and when the military demolition squad followed the president’s order, all three bridges broke to pieces and fell into the river, along with the people on them. At least a thousand refugees were killed by the explosion or drowned in the rapid current.
Rhee was never tried for his crime because no one could challenge his supremacy, like that of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un today. Tragically, a Korean army chief engineer was blamed for premature destroying the Han Bridge and for the lives lost, and was executed. Under Rhee’s rule thousands of military personnel, government employees and civilians were labeled as “reds” and were arrested, tortured, and then executed. In my memory, it was a time when the value of human life was cheaper than that of livestock.
Two weeks ago South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won resigned, taking responsibility for the government’s inept handling of the ferry disaster, including problems with safety measures and regulatory enforcement.
When I left Korea in the mid-1960s, decay and greed were everywhere, not only in the government but in the academic fields as well.
One of my university professors, for instance, showed his appetite for money in his words and actions. Often, a student with rich parents won an audition for an honor recital at the end of a school year, rather than those who showed talent in performance. Such injustice in the school system and the mentality of my own professor caused me to dream of finding my music career outside the country. Eventually, I succeeded and played 30 seasons in the cello section of the Kansas City Philharmonic-Symphony.
At every turn in the course of life, there are lessons to learn. Reports say the ill-fated ferry had exceeded its cargo limit on nearly every voyage it made during the past 13 months. On its last trip, it carried 3,608 tons of cargo, including 150 cars, when it was only allowed to carry one third of that. And did school officials do their homework about the company’s credentials and safety measures before they allowed 325 of their students to board the ship? And the parents? Had I been a mom raising teenagers in Korea today, would I have blindly trusted the school officials and let my kids go on a ferry to Jeju Island, a journey of more than 12 hours each way on rough seas?
Still, President Park Geun-hye’s words comfort me: “We’ll fix the problems and change… so we’ll have safer nation and won’t let (people) die in vain.” I believe her.