05/07/2014 03:18 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2014

Captain or a Slave?

Among the many causes of the ferry disaster in South Korea, the scandalous behaviour of the captain, Lee Joon-seok, is certainly the most puzzling. Not only has he failed to evacuate hundreds of passengers during the first 50 minutes or so of the accident when evacuation should have been possible. He was also among the first to abandon the ship when the rescue vessels arrived, wilfully ignoring the remaining passengers, most of them young students, whose lives it was his duty to protect. How do we account for such utter incompetence and inhumaneness?

The simplest explanation would be that the captain of Sewol, the sunken ferry, was unusually stupid or selfish or both. Perhaps so. But there is another, more sinister possibility: he was captain in name but not in substance. Start with the fact that Lee was a substitute captain filling in for the off-duty captain. He probably had less attachment to the vessel than captains usually do. He was also a contract employee, meaning his employer could let him go easily if times turned bad. At around $2,600 a month, his salary was much lower than the Korean shipping industry standard.

Crucially, Lee may also have lacked the authority which we normally associate with his position. It has been revealed that the captain and crew had spoken with their employer, Chunghaejin Marine, at least seven times on the phone during the crucial 50 minutes. While we don't know exactly who called whom or what was being said, there can be no doubt that Lee promptly reported the accident to the head office. Once the news reached Kim Han-sik, president of Chunghaejin, Kim reportedly called Yoo Byung-eon, the company owner, several times. The sequence of calls indicates a strictly top-down organization where everyone reports but no one decides - no one except the owner, that is. It also explains why the captain wavered until the last minute on whether to issue the evacuation order: he was not authorized to do so.

Just to be clear, I am not defending the dishonourable conduct of the captain by any means. My point is that we cannot take a captain's noble conduct for granted. Lee did not have job security, decent wage, decision-making authority or emotional attachment to the vessel. How can we expect him to chivalrously sacrifice himself when the ship goes down?

If anything, Lee probably saw himself as an exploited worker. In my view, he might as well have been a slave. What are the characteristics of a slave? Having been forced to serve against his will, a slave grows detached and recalcitrant. He also becomes indifferent - in pre-industrial times, slaves were prone to lying, feigning illness, breaking tools, mismanaging crop and mistreating livestock, simply because they did not care about their work.[1] Lee and his crew did not care, either - how else can we account for the fact that they bailed themselves out as soon as the coast guard arrived, without even bothering to inform those trapped inside?

That last point perhaps deserves further examination because, under normal circumstances, human nature is generally quite kind. Many survivors of Sewol told tales of brave teachers who sacrificed themselves to save students and students themselves giving up life jackets for one another. One exceptional crew member, Park Ji-young, died while helping teenagers escape. When those whom she saved relayed her last words - "After saving you I will get out. The crew goes out last." - she became a national hero.

While we do not expect such heroic bravery of Lee, the captain should have at least felt some compunction about leaving so many young lives behind. But he clearly did not. According to The Chosun Ilbo, a Korean newspaper which analyzed the video footage of the rescue scene, the captain and crew failed "even to glance at the cabins where hundreds of passengers, mostly high school students, were told to remain and became trapped." Lee was later found spreading his soaked bills on the ground to dry - a few hundred dollars in his pocket apparently mattered more to him than the few hundred lives he had abandoned. Such callous indifference to the suffering of others is inhuman.

Among other issues, what the tragedy highlights is the dehumanizing nature of the labor practice prevalent in South Korea today. We wish we could say Chunghaejin is an isolated case, one of the few bad apples in an otherwise benign society. But that is not true. Too many companies treat their employees - especially contract employees, also known as "non-regular" workers - as if they were mere moneymaking tools. (Nine of the 15 surviving crew members involved in the ship's navigation were contract employees. ) Not surprisingly, when the management is greedy and self-serving, employees grow detached, resentful and cynical. Just how cynical the modern slaves can become was amply on display during the latest manmade disaster.

[1] See, for example, Lawrence Levine's account quoted in Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013), p. 172