SEOUL – What does a sudden South Korean media obsession with cars parked next to fire hydrants, and construction workers neglecting to wear hard hats, have to do with the country’s worst disaster in years? It is a sign of a nation that has been jolted into thinking about safety.
One month after the ferry sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing, there is a national debate — and spasms of shame and fury — over issues neglected as the country made its breakneck way from poverty, war and dictatorship to one of Asia’s top economic, diplomatic and cultural powers.
The tragedy exposed regulatory failures that appear to have allowed the ferry Sewol to set off with far more cargo than it could safely carry.
Media are now scrambling to highlight safety transgressions that have been almost universally overlooked by Seoul’s 10 million residents.
“We’re good at cutting corners — incredibly good at it. It’s almost this sense that the one who finds the fastest way to get things done, that’s the hero,” said Hahm Chaibong, president of the Asan Institute think tank in Seoul and an expert on Confucianism. “People until now thought that cutting corners was profitable.”
Many South Koreans are proud of the local industrial titans that rival the best companies in the world in quality, skill and safety: Samsung, Korean Air, Hyundai. But the country also has a history of disregard for basic safety practices, including in the ferry industry.
The April 16 sinking of the Sewol is in some ways reminiscent of South Korea’s last major ferry disaster, a 1993 sinking that killed 292 people. An investigative report said government and shipping agency negligence allowed that ship to carry excessive passengers and cargo, which it said led to the sinking.
The report demanded that the government toughen regulations, but little was done. An inspector who examined the Sewol amid a redesign last year said the changes slashed the ship’s cargo capacity by more than half, but those new restrictions appear to have been ignored. Investigators are again looking at excessive cargo as a factor in a ferry sinking that killed hundreds.
Divers have recovered 284 bodies and continue to search for 20 other victims. All 15 surviving crew members responsible for navigation were indicted Thursday, four on homicide charges, and the head of the company that owns the ship has been arrested.
Meanwhile, the country seethes with outrage, over both poor regulation and mistakes during the rescue effort. Families of the dead and missing have complained about miscommunications and delays, and about early erroneous reports from the government that most of the ferry’s 476 passengers survived.
Senior government workers have been slapped, manhandled and jeered at. Two high-ranking officials were forced by enraged parents to sit overnight on a tent floor and listen to grievances.
President Park Geun-hye has apologized, decried an emphasis on materialism and convenience and promised a review of the nation’s safety system “from scratch.” The prime minister has resigned. Candidates in June mayoral elections have vowed to boost safety measures.
A huge banner hanging from the front of Seoul’s City Hall says, “Sorry.”
Politicians aren’t the only people rethinking safety. Major newspapers and TV stations have been running stories raising safety worries in practically every corner of daily life.
Joongang Ilbo newspaper described an Internet cafe’s emergency exit blocked by boxes of cup noodles and a karaoke room with no fire extinguisher. It ran pictures of motorcyclists blasting down sidewalks and riding without helmets. “Safety ignorance is everywhere,” read a caption next to a picture of a car parked in front of a fire hydrant.
Another paper, Chosun Ilbo, ran photos of construction workers walking tightrope-style on thin iron pipes 10 meters above the ground. The YTN TV network informed its viewers that South Korea has the highest rate of pedestrian deaths among rich nations and cited a survey that found four out of 10 Seoul citizens had jaywalked.
Part of the hand-wringing is a reflection of the country’s increasing wealth. Many citizens who may have felt less empowered decades ago are now better able to demand safe roads, ferries, planes and workplaces.
“We’re on the cusp of entering this advanced industrialized state, where there’s a lot of middle class who demand enjoyment of their leisure time, and we need the infrastructure for that,” said Hahm of the Asan Institute.
It is unclear, however, whether South Koreans will be willing to devote more attention and resources to safety in the long run.
Lee Youn-ho, a general manager at the Citizen’s Coalition for Safety, said more should be done in schools to teach safety, but parents will likely object to any big cut in regular study hours. Lee said the problems remain — little regulation, light punishment for violators and wide ignorance about safety in general — because society continues to value “economic achievements ahead of everything else.”