In the aftermath of one of its worst-ever maritime disasters, South Korea has found itself grappling with the question of how a modern ferry came to capsize in calm waters with the loss of 302 passengers, most of them high school students.
Alongside the expected grief and anger, the sinking of the Sewol on April 16 has also fuelled introspection about arguably the crowning achievement of the country’s modern history: its rapid rise from poverty to prosperity.
From the 1960s up until the 1980s, successive dictatorial governments implemented massive infrastructure projects and ambitious manufacturing targets at lightning speed. There followed an almost uninterrupted period of unprecedented economic growth. The “ppalli ppalli” (hurry, hurry) mentality exemplified by former dictator Park Chung-hee is considered to have been an indispensible ingredient in the “Miracle on the Han.”
But in the wake of the tragedy, newspaper editorials and commentators have asked if one cost of such a dramatic economic rise has been a society with a pervasive disregard for public safety.
In the Yeongnam Ilbo, a regional newspaper based in the country’s fourth-largest city Daegu, one column described the Sewol disaster as “the worst sort of outrageous drama” created by a culture of “daechung daechung,” translated loosely as “cutting corners.”
Yoon Cheol-hee, the paper’s social affairs editor, wrote that the shame and regret felt over the tragedy must never be forgotten so that South Korea can “break free from being an underdeveloped country in terms of safety.”
An editorial for the Jeju Ilbo, headquartered on the island the ill-fated ferry had been traveling to, asked if the “ppalli ppalli” mentality was to blame for the disaster, warning that economic development alone cannot create an “advanced country.”
“The value we had was the value of efficiency: given the time, and given the cost, and how fast and how cost-efficiently you achieve the goal. So that… was compelling energy we had, which was used to promote economic growth,” Moon M. Jae, a professor at the Department of Public Administration at Yonsei University in Seoul, told The Diplomat. “I think the downside to that mode is actually the effectiveness in safety and those values that were a little bit lacking.”
In a strongly nationalistic country where tragedy and celebration alike are often seen to reflect the entire nation, the latest disaster has repeatedly been discussed in the same breath as previous calamities, many of them non-maritime, such as the collapse of a shopping mall in 1995 and a subway arson attack in 2003, both of which killed hundreds. As appears to be the case with the Sewol, incompetence and malpractice were features of both disasters.
Kim Chan-o, a professor at the Department of Safety Engineering at Seoul National University of Science and Technology, is one of many who believe the country’s rapid development has had negative consequences for safety right across society.
“As well as in the areas of construction and transportation, in all the other social areas, the negative effect exists now,” said Kim.
“Although the safety standards have many problems, I think the biggest problem is the safety awareness of the people, and that officials do not keep safety standards.”
South Korea lags other developed countries in a number of areas of public safety, according to statistics. The country had the highest death rate for pedestrians in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2012, and the highest number of road fatalities per 1 billion vehicle–kilometers in the previous year.
In its 2014 report on crime and safety in South Korea, the Overseas Security Advisory Council under the U.S. Department of State advised that, “vehicles frequently do not yield to pedestrians in marked crosswalks,” and that “it is common for drivers to watch live TV through their GPS devices via DMB (digital multimedia broadcasting) technology, a contributing factor in many accidents.”
Periodic work-related deaths at big name conglomerates such as Samsung, meanwhile, have been a recurrent source of controversy. In 2012, the country registered 1,134 fatal injuries in the workplace, not including 730 fatal illnesses. Differences in classification make comparisons across countries difficult, but the U.S., which has a population some six times greater than South Korea, had just 4,383 fatal workplace injuries in the same year.
And in the most recent blow to confidence in the country’s transport network, the government just last week announced that it would sanction Asiana Airlines over an incident in which its pilots continued a flight to Saipan despite engine trouble.
In the case of the Sewol, the list of alleged safety failures is long: the captain and crew failed to properly evacuate the ship; most of the life boats were not operational; and the vessel had been illegally modified and dangerously overloaded.
All 15 members of the crew involved in navigating the vessel, including the captain, have been arrested on various charges related to neglecting their duties. The operator of the ferry, Chonghaejin Marine Co., and its sister firms have come under investigation for alleged financial irregularities. Meanwhile, the Korean Register of Shipping and Korea Shipping Association, two of the main regulatory bodies for maritime safety, are accused of accepting bribes to overlook safety lapses.
“Although many people know what to do for maritime safety, they have not conducted it by themselves because of financial burden and bad habits,” said Hong Seung-kweon, an expert in maritime safety at Korea National University of Transportation in Chungju, about 150 km from Seoul.
The authorities’ response to the disaster has also generated shame and anger, aggravated further by the release Monday of footage of the initial rescue effort by the Coast Guard. In the video, a Coast Guard vessel is shown keeping its distance from the ship, which took nearly two hours to sink completely beneath the sea apart from a small section of the keel. Once onboard, rescue personal failed to enter the vessel to locate survivors. Responding to the criticism, Coast Guards officials claimed that the severe listing of the ship and safety concerns for its personnel made it impossible to rescue a greater number of passengers despite their best efforts. Just 174 of the more 450 people onboard escaped the ship alive.
Moon, the Yonsei University professor, said the rescue operation, as well as the accident itself, illustrated a general problem with adhering to what on paper are often decent standards.
“Timely action wasn’t taken, and it is not because we didn’t have a disaster management or crisis management system – that system was there – but it didn’t play (out) a way we wanted to see,” he said.
Not all observers, however, agree that problems in maritime safety can be traced to the country’s fast accession to the club of rich nations or any related mentality.
“I can’t agree with their opinion. I think that the rapid economic development could not have led to weak safety standards,” said Hong. “I think that they are making excuses.”
A bigger threat to safety at sea, he said, has been old-fashioned greed.
“A noticeable threat to maritime safety is not to follow the safety rules for economic benefit.”
John Power is a Seoul-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @John_F_Power