Dispatch inspired by Seoul


Our Korean face, Priscilla sends a dispatch from Seoul. Rows of countless yellow ribbons line the streets in front of Seoul’s city hall as the city mourns the death of 287 plus lives lost in the Sewol ferry disaster. The long ribbons contain written messages to the victims, many expressing their apologies and promises of "never again" and "you will never be forgotten." The yellow ribbon holds various symbolic meaning across the world including forgiveness, solidarity, protest, hope, army troop support, suicide awareness, and higher education. In South Korea, the color yellow also signifies the opposition political party against the current dominant political party, which is represented by the color red. Many Koreans blame the government for the deaths and they demand retribution. In the face of such anger and grief, what is the government to do?

The United States has had its share of tragedies on a national scale. There have been too many school shootings, terrorist attacks, and disasters caused by corporate negligence. In many of these instances, Congress has repeatedly appointed Kenneth Feinberg as an arbitrator to monitor and designate compensation awards to victims' families. Nicknamed the "pay czar" and "Special Master for Compensation," Feinberg has been involved in the Agent Orange product liability litigation, the asbestos personal injury litigation, September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund (Virginia Tech shooting), the BP oil spill fund, the Penn State settlement (Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal), the Aurora victim relief fund, the Boston Marathon Bomb Victims fund, and the Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation. Feinberg's skill lies in the ability to quietly listen to the stories from families, learning early on the importance of allowing grief-stricken families to vent their frustrations and sorrows. He then devises a system that allows him to calculate how much each family should be compensated. Of course, Feinberg has many critics who are unhappy with his methods and there are families who believe they deserve more - he has been openly yelled at during meetings. In his new book, Who Gets What: Fair Compensation After Tragedy and Financial Upheaval, he challenges anyone else to take his job if they think they can do better. He knows that his formula is not perfect and he has made some mistakes, but it is the best anyone has come up with so far.

I met a Korean labor attorney who also attended the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University when I was in South Korea for a business trip. We spoke about the program, what we have been up to since we graduated, and recent disasters such as the Sewol ferry tragedy. Kang Boon Moon has an incredible knack of receiving new concepts and creatively applying it her passion in alternative dispute resolution. I told her about Kenneth Feinberg and his incredibly difficult task of sorting through sorrow and having to put a price on lost lives. Moon absorbed this information and began to think of ways to apply what Kenneth Feinberg has accomplished to the Sewol disaster. She insisted that the time for new turnings in Korea is now. Koreans are focused on victim compensation and the strict enforcement of policies. In a country where presidents and politicians have never apologized for their actions, would a government-appointed arbitrator be accepted by the Korean citizens?

© Conflict Change Consulting Ltd.  2014