Did culture of obedience aggravate ferry disaster?

A mourner cries as she pays tribute in Ansan, at a temporary group memorial altar for victims of capsized passenger ship Sewol, April 24, 2014.

One of the stereotypes about Koreans is that, regardless of their age or cultural experience, they have deeply ingrained Confucian values including deference to the elderly.

Those values may provide an easy way to describe Korean society, but they do not determine the way young liberal Koreans behave, particularly in life-threatening emergencies, experts said.

In the wake of the ferry disaster last Wednesday, many foreign media outlets have focused on what they called Korea's "hierarchical culture," or "culture of obedience." They have said that the young victims' decision to follow the crew's directions to stay put under the decks, instead of attempting to escape, can be partially attributed to this cultural tendency.

"Many of the children did not question their elders, as is customary in hierarchical Korean society. They paid for their obedience with their lives," said an article published by Reuters on Tuesday.

An article in Singapore's Straits Times on April 17, the day after the sinking, expressed a similar viewpoint.

"Like other Asian nations, South Korean society is based on a neo-Confucian culture which emphasizes obedience to authority figures and deference to elders. In the wake of the Sewol sinking, these values are being called into question," the article said.

The ferry disaster that left nearly 300 people dead or missing has made those outside Korea search for their own explanations, including cultural factors. But analysts are calling for a more prudent analysis of the disaster.

Choi Hoon-seok, a social psychology professor at Seoul's Sungkyunkwan University, countered the view that Korea's Confucianism-based culture was part of the reason why students stayed put as the crew directed.

"That is the typical ignorance and misunderstanding found in Western society about the true nature of Confucianism. Confucianism does not endorse blind conformity or obedience to the elderly or authorities," he said.

"The true nature of it rests in the fact that society will be maintained and function better when people fulfil their duties and responsibilities in their own positions. The sheer fact that Confucianism emphasizes harmony and collaboration does not mean that one must obey orders from the authorities or follow the majority all the time."

Won Kyu-wang, an English teacher at Goyang Global High School in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province, said that students' decision to follow the crew's directions might have been based on their own considerations of the best option for their survival, not their obedience to the ferry authorities.

"Think about what you might do on a sinking ship when you don't have any knowledge about what to do regarding the emergency situation. In that case, they might have listened to their teachers or crewmembers as the best option to secure their survival," he said.

"That decision to stay put seems to have little to do with Korea's hierarchical culture."

There have been cases in the past of Korea's culture of deference towards seniors being linked to an accident or disaster. One such case was the crash of an Asiana Airlines passenger plane last July.

"New details about the crash of an Asiana Airlines jet have renewed questions about whether a culture of strict deference to more senior pilots can compromise air safety," said a CBS article in December.

"Two of the pilots told investigators they opted against voicing critical concerns or grabbing the controls because they were subordinate to the instructor."

Analysts argue that young Koreans are not like those in the 1980s or '90s, as educational authorities have stressed creativity and individuality as main drivers of the country's economic advancement, and as many have constant cultural exchanges with others around the globe through the Internet.

"Look at the big cultural gap between the young and old generations. This partly explains that things have changed," said a schoolteacher, asking not to be named. "What is seen as a culture of obedience does not really exist among middle- and high-school students anymore."


Lee Hyung-jeong and Suh Ye-seul contributed to this article. ― Ed.