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[Chi Hyung Jeon - Column] What should the second Sewol investigation commission Do? (Hankyoreh, 2018.4.25)
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    2018.05.01 10:23
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[Column] What should the second Sewol investigation commission Do?

 

 

 

Families deserve comprehensive answers to cause of ferry disaster
On the morning July 1, 2016, families of the Sewol victims gathered in front of the Sewol Ferry Disaster Special Investigation Commission in Seoul. They cheered for the investigators who were coming to work—the Commission had been forced to shut down by the government the day before. Determined to work without pay, unable to publish their findings, these investigators had seen every possible thing that can go wrong with a disaster investigation.

 

 

In late July, in a never-before seen moment in the history of such investigations, Chairman Lee Seok-tae went on a hunger strike to protest the government’s obstruction in the commission’s activities. What began as an earnest attempt to learn from the most horrible disaster in recent South Korean history quickly devolved into a politicized quagmire—a disaster after the disaster.

 

 

On March 29, 2018, the families again gathered, this time in front of the second special investigation commission, or “Social Disasters Special Investigation Commission,” established recently to work on the humidifier disinfectant deaths as well as Sewol ferry cases. Ms. Kang Ji-eun, the mother of Danwon High School student and Sewol victim Ji Sang-jun, confronted Mr. Hwang Jeon-won, the commission member recommended by the Liberty Korea Party, which had been the ruling party at the time of the first commission.

 

 

Ms. Kang shouted at Mr. Hwang, “What is the Special Investigation Commission? Do you know what you’re getting into? What in the world are you thinking?” (Mr. Hwang had been a member of the first commission and the families had accused him of obstructing the commission’s work.) Ms. Kang and the families were trying to save the second commission from falling into another quagmire. On Apr. 11, Mr. You Gyung-geun, the executive director of the 4.16 Family Association, shaved off his hair, calling for Mr. Hwang’s resignation.

 

 

The mother’s question — “What is the special investigation commission?” — could have been asked of the first Commission in 2015. In interviews conducted over the summer of 2017, we discovered that the Special Commission’s success was in jeopardy from the first meeting, when the seventeen commissioners could not agree even on the fundamental tasks of the commission.

 

 

The members recommended by the ruling party (Saenuri) were concerned that the commission was a tool to discredit former president Park Geun-hye. They argued that the commission’s primary task was to review the previous Sewol reports and correct errors. The members recommended by the opposition party and the families disagreed. The special commission, in their view, was supposed to exercise its own initiative to investigate every aspect of the disaster.
 
An investigation stymied by political disagreements

 

 

This antagonistic framework was built into the composition of the commission when the law-makers negotiated the terms of the special act for the commission. As the commission members were recommended by entities with drastically different views of the Sewol sinking, they could not overcome the political divide within their meeting room. The commissioners should have busied themselves with drawing up investigation plans and resolving small disagreements, but they ended up confirming their insurmountable differences in worldview. The legally forced heterogeneity in the commission’s composition did not produce a “golden ratio,” as some had hoped, to implement democratic decision-making. Instead, it cemented distrust and hostility as the default operating condition of the commission.

 

 

Unable to push its own investigation plans to agreement, the commission proceeded to work on the individual cases of inquiry submitted by the families. This “submission case method” was modeled on the approach used by the truth and reconciliation commissions that had worked on the cases of suspicious deaths under the postwar authoritarian regimes in South Korea. Investigating individually submitted cases, however, was not suitable for understanding the complexity of the Sewol disaster. As the investigators persisted through political and bureaucratic obstructionism, they often lost sight of the big picture of the investigation. The question about the identity of the Special Investigation Commission was left unanswered.

 

 

To be fair, disaster investigations are very difficult even under the best of circumstances. Many of the issues encountered in South Korea have played out in other disasters; the immediate rush to discover truth and “learn lessons” often gives way to the political realities of entrenched, powerful interests. Merely deciding what the disaster to be investigated is may seem easy, but often proves impossible.

 

 

In the case of September 11, for example, was the disaster the failure of the aviation security system, in which planes were hijacked and crashed? Was it the failure of the counter-terrorism system, in which crucial information was not picked up or shared? Or was it the failure of the building and fire safety system, in which they could not extinguish high rise fires in time to save those trapped in the World Trade Center towers? Consensus still doesn’t exist on these questions.

 

 

For all the disagreements and tensions, however, an investigation commission has to characterize the disaster and determine what to investigate and how. The 9.11 Commission, for instance, did not address the building safety question in detail, and it was then taken up by a separate, technical investigation.

 

 

Special investigation commission needed to examine Sewol sinking

 

 

The second Sewol commission came into being with the label of “social disaster,” which seems to presuppose a certain perspective on the two cases it will investigate. “Social disasters” deserve a special investigation commission, not necessarily because we distrust the Prosecutor’s Office, the Board of Audit, and the Maritime Safety Board that have investigated the Sewol case.

 

 

It is rather because a social disaster cannot be fully explained by conventional investigations with specific epistemic and bureaucratic frameworks. Who broke rules and laws? Who ordered it? Who should go to prison? These questions can be answered by conventional investigative bodies relatively well, unless there is unfair and unlawful pressure from above. What exactly happened? How was this made possible? What needs to change? What should Korean society learn? It is these broader questions that a social disaster commission should address.
 
What can the Social Disasters Special Investigation Commission, or the second Sewol commission, learn from the history of disaster investigation and especially from the experience of the first Sewol commission?

 

 

First, the commission staff members need to talk to each other a lot. All the commissioners and investigators should offer their thoughts on the definition, scope, and character of the disaster, debate them, and, if possible, reach an agreement.

 

 

They all should keep asking, “what do we plan to investigate?” Both the Sewol and humidifier disinfectant cases are embedded deeply in the structure of Korean society, but the special commission cannot investigate or change everything. While the commission can keep its eyes open for broader questions, the investigation plan must be clear and specific. If the initial direction is not discussed enough, it will become difficult to manage disagreements and conflicts over the course of investigation. The commission may then face the criticism that “no truth has been revealed.”

 

 

Second, the “golden ratio” does not operate well. The composition of the first Sewol commission, by which members were recommended by various political or legal entities, was a recipe for an organizational and political deadlock. It showed that ideological balance would not guarantee the efficiency and fairness of the investigation. Since it cannot change the legal principle of its composition, the commission needs institutional measures to settle severe disagreement or confrontation, such as a small panel of experts who can adjudicate disputes that cannot be resolved in the all-member meetings.

 

 

Third, the commission should mobilize a great variety of expertise. The two disasters cannot be understood unless the commission is equipped with a broad range of skills among commissioners and investigators, such as marine engineers, chemists, public and mental health professionals, media experts, and legal professionals. It wouldn’t hurt to include one or more staff with skills in documenting the commission’s activities, placing its work in a broader historical and social context, and communicating its findings to the public. The commission’s capability will largely depend on finding the right kind of expertise at its beginning.

 

 

Fourth, the commission should respect the victims and their families. Families historically have been the driving force behind getting disaster investigations started—channeling their moral authority to demand answers even after the press and most citizens have moved on with their lives. This has been true in cases from September 11 to Sewol. The families are the ones who never truly forget.

 

 

Fifth, the commission should produce a compelling report. All the obstructions and conflicts in the first Sewol commission led to its closure without a final report. The second commission’s report should be imagined as a document that can capture the interest of the average South Korean. It is noteworthy that the September 11 commission report became a bestseller in the US. The second commission’s report should offer a definitive, if not the final, word on the disaster’s causes, identify the wrongdoings of the government and the corporations, and record the long-term impacts on the families that may require restitution.

 

 

A basis for policy recommendations

 

 

A good disaster investigation report becomes a basis for action. Even with remaining disagreements on the scope and process of the investigation, the government should take its findings seriously and implement policy changes that the report recommends. The September 11 report, for example, shaped the agenda of the largest US federal government agency created since the Cold War—the Department of Homeland Security. And a separate technical report on the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings generated important changes for safety, such as new high rise building codes. The Sewol commission reports can also lead to concrete, meaningful changes, as long as the government is willing to follow through.

 

 

Most of all, an official disaster investigation enables us to turn tragedy into a part of our collective history and remember it officially. When the commission finally provides an honest explanation of what happened and what went wrong, we will be able to do what President Moon did at this year’s memorial ceremony for victims of the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising. The president made a “declaration” that “the truth of Apr. 3 has become a historical fact that no one can deny.” He also made a “promise” that the government would “proceed steadfast toward a complete resolution of Apr. 3.” With Sewol, we have not made an official declaration or promise yet.

 

 

Scott Gabriel Knowles and Jeon Chi-hyung
 
 
It is difficult to bring closure to a disaster. There is no “complete resolution” to those who have lost their family tragically. But we can still hope that a thorough investigation, a sincere apology, and a firm promise could bring some consolation and peace to the victims and their families. And through the process, all of us may become a little safer and have a little more faith in the government. It is sad to learn something only after a disaster. It is sadder not to learn anything from a disaster.

 

 

By Scott Gabriel Knowles and Jeon Chi-hyung

 

 

Scott Gabriel Knowles is a historian of disaster at Drexel University, who spent the summer of 2017 as a visiting professor at KAIST researching the Sewol ferry disaster. Jeon Chi-hyung is an assistant professor at the KAIST Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy. They are conducting research on how disaster investigation commissions can produce reliable public knowledge of catastrophes.

 

 

 

http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_editorial/842021.html 

 

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