December 7, 2022
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Guest commentary: Ship desertion reveals cultural differences

On April 16, news of the sunken South Korean ferry Sewol shocked the world, not only because more than 150 casualties were confirmed as of April 23, but also because Captain Lee Joon-seok decided to leave the ferry first and thereby abandon hundreds of passengers onboard.

Western nations like the United States reported intensely on the issue involving the captain, albeit largely from a eurocentric standpoint. Yet in South Korea, his actions are legally sanctionable. Under Article 10 of the Korean Seaman’s Act, South Korea made it a crime to “depart the vessels ahead of the passengers” in maritime emergencies.

For abandoning his legal duty as captain, Joon-seok was arrested April 19 and charged with negligence and failing to secure the safety of passengers, in violation of maritime law. South Korean President Park Geun Hye blasted the captain and crew members for their “unforgivable, murderous behavior,” according to an April 21 article in USA Today. In defense, Joon-seok explained that he was afraid the passengers would drift away in the ocean’s rough currents if they attempted to jump off the ship.

However, in almost all the Western coverage of this incident, Joon-seok was discussed in terms of his lack of stewardship, which is more generally expected. This newsworthy incident highlighted a critical difference in Western and Eastern culture. From outlets like the BBC, CNN and The New York Times, the name of Titanic captain Edward Smith was starkly compared with Joon-seok’s. When the Titanic was sinking, Smith coordinated the evacuation effort by ordering the famous “women and children first” code and went down with the ship.

Unlike in the East, the gentlemen culture is more predominant. Western males generally adhere to a set of social norms such as giving up seats on public transport to pregnant women or women with children. Globally, captains of large carriers have a responsibility to protect the passengers and stay with the carrier until all passengers have been safely evacuated.

In the East, “women and children first” is not necessarily an expected courtesy in an emergency. In 1994, a fire broke out during a live performance in an auditorium in Karamay, Xinjiang, a province in China. Primary school students were instructed to stay behind as the city officials were escorted out to safety, but at the expense of 288 students who died. Captain Joon-seok’s behavior signifies this lack of courtesy, traditional to Eastern culture.

But in recent decades, because of the large consumption of Western products, the East has been highly exposed and adaptive to Western values and cultures, and western stewardship and altruism do have their roles in Eastern society. In fact, some of the passengers on the ferry exhibited this self-sacrifice to save others. Park Ji-young, a 22-year-old crew member, helped teenagers get life jackets and directed them to the escape route. She refused to jumped to the lifeboat and was later found dead in the sea. Instances like this indicate a shift toward a more gender-balanced and respectful Eastern state.

Joon-seok did make a grave mistake, but the media should have focused more on the altruistic and heroic acts of the people who saved many people’s lives.