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DEEP SEA

Even the mystery of disappearance perhaps would have been more comforting than the certainty of death, which faces many of the families in South Korea yet to receive news of their kin on board the ill-fated ferry, Sewol. It has been more than a week since the ferry sank, only a short distance away from the coast. But the administration still has to account for more than a hundred who are missing. But it is not the long-drawn search operation that is sitting heavily on the conscience of the nation. It is the entirely preventable fate that met the passengers of the ferry, hundreds of them teenage students from a nearby school. The ferry they were travelling in was left at the hands of an inexperienced sailor by the captain, who took an untimely break and then compounded his crime by deciding to abandon ship together with his crew when it became apparent that the ferry would sink. The passengers were specifically asked to stay put, and by the time they were asked to evacuate after a spate of indecision among the authorities, their fate was sealed. Around 174 of them have survived, while 302, most of them students, are either dead or officially missing. The captain of the ship, now in custody together with his mates, has emerged the villain but other shocking details have surfaced that indict others. For one, the unhealthy nexus between the government regulators and the shipping industry. It allowed the ferry’s management to carry out alterations that made the ship top-heavy and allowed overloading. The accident has also exposed the complete disorganization in the structure of command and control that would have enabled the authorities to be responsible in crisis management. The exposures are not startling, but they are deeply embarrassing. Hence the sudden resignation of the prime minister, Chung Hong-won.

It is possible that the government of Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s president, now handling the high-profile visit of the president of the United States of America, hopes to ease some of its moral burden this way. But it would perhaps be more rewarding if South Korea continued with the soul-searching that it has embarked on. South Koreans blame the society to have sacrificed concern for human life to fast-paced development. But then, even without South Korea’s development record, India has done much the same.