It was a clear morning on a peaceful late summer day in New York when I returned home from a pleasant jog with my Dad and found the answering machine beeping urgently with an unusually high number of unheard messages. We only got through a couple ("Where are you? Call when you get this") when another call came through, this one from my older brother. Before hello, he simply said, "Turn on the TV." The date was September 11, 2001, and both of the Twin Towers had already been struck by planes. While we dizzily tried to catch up on what had happened from both the TV newscaster and my brother, right before my eyes, I saw (on TV) the first tower just completely disintegrate and collapse.
It was a shockingly surreal moment. How could the Twin Towers just ... disappear? How could terrorists launch such a successful coordinated attack on multiple high-value targets simultaneously? The illusion of safety and security was instantly shattered, and for the next few days, we flinched every time a plane flew overhead. America was irrevocably changed on that day, and the repercussions continue to be felt.
Not long after, I was back in California for my fall semester, and at the end of a class which was as far from politics as one can imagine, our extremely soft-spoken, mild-mannered instructor informed us very simply that America was changing for the worse, the powers-that-be were entrenched and out to keep their power and money without regard for the betterment of the nation, and that it was up to us, the young people, to take the country back and build it into the nation we wanted it to be.
As the unbelievably heartbreaking tale of the Sewol ferry continues to unfold here in Korea, I find myself returning to thoughts of September 11th and how it was a watershed moment for America. But before all that, I simply find myself struggling to understand why this tragedy has affected me so greatly. And part of it, I think, is the sheer surreality of the whole event. Just like September 11th, we watched this unfold in real time, and just like the events of that day, it nearly defied belief. How completely and utterly helpless I felt watching a ferry sinking slowly enough to be surrounded by cameras and boats and helicopters and the friggin' Coast Guard and supposedly trained rescue professionals, only to watch a bunch of people pulled out of the water while the majority of the passengers were literally left to die (just seven - seven kids! - were saved from inside the boat). Even as I write this, I am overcome with anger and sadness thinking not just of the massive loss of life, but of the inescapable conclusion that it simply didn't have to be that way. There was plenty of time to save the kids on that boat, but they were sent to their deaths by obscenely inhuman cowardice and, frankly, gross incompetence.
This is Korea's September 11th. Not because it signifies the opening salvo in a war on some ambiguous enemy, but because it is a chance for change. Just like September 11th shattered the illusion of safety and security in America, the Sewol tragedy shattered the illusion that Korea is a grown-up society that takes care of its own. I've spent a fair amount of time here, and I've noted to friends on many occasions that the paternalistic nature of Korea is at times annoyingly oppressive (c.f. internet censorship) but also often quite admirable. Up until the Sewol, it really seemed that Koreans looked out for one another more so than almost all other cultures; that everyone was in it together.
But it's impossible to look at the Sewol and keep this harmonious image of Korean society intact. Instead, you see a society dominated by old rich people that control both corporations and the government, a media that can't be trusted to report the actual facts, a safety service that is both disorganized and undertrained, and corrupt businessmen who flagrantly violate regulations and treat human life as discardable.
What good is a society that doesn't take care of its youth? In America, we squandered our moment of change. Despite the sense of unity and feeling of togetherness that permeated the initial days after 9/11, rather than rebuilding a better society at home and nurturing the rare international sympathy that poured in after the attacks, we launched two wars that cost both our national treasure and our credibility on the international stage, we built a security apparatus based on ineffective theater, personal humiliation, and mass surveillance, and we've polarized politics to the point where nearly nothing gets done and long term visions are sacrificed to short term elections and the moneyed winds of corporate interests. We care so much about our youth that we'd rather give guns to the mentally ill than affordable health care to kids. We're no safer, we're certainly poorer, and many people, including myself, think we're going in the wrong direction.
We may have dropped the ball in America, but in Korea, this is your defining moment. It's up to you, the young people (or at least the young at heart) of Korea. You are the only hope. The generation running Korea has proven itself incapable. They will lie, they will cheat, they will misdirect, because the only thing they seem to care about is keeping power and getting richer. Except it's not your Korea that they're building and profiting from; it's theirs.
I saw an interview with a high school student today, and she said that the disaster had affected her greatly, and all she could do in response was study hard so in the future she could make Korea into a better country. If this tragedy inspires a whole generation of young people to feel similarly, then perhaps some good will come of it.
But make no mistake; this will not be an easy fight. Everyone is working against you. Society is working against you. They don't want you to win. But that is why it is so important to prevail. Young people in Korea need to take a hold of this country and steer it to that healthy society that we were told we already had. Young people are the creative engine of this country, the heart and soul of this country, the literal lifeblood of this country's future, but the time for waiting and listening is done. The powers that be had their chance, but they let the country down in an unforgivable way. The way forward is via the youth. And sadly, incomprehensibly, against all reason and understanding, that way is missing 300 of its own.