Im­proved safety af­ter Se­wol un­re­al­ized


A year ago, as South Korea writhed in grief and fury af­ter more than 300 peo­ple, most of them school kids, drowned in a ferry sink­ing, it seemed things would never be the same. Yet not much has re­ally changed as the first an­niver­sary of the Se­wol dis­as­ter is marked Thurs­day.

Ex­perts be­lieve it will be decades be­fore any ma­jor shift is seen in wide­spread at­ti­tudes that make safety sub­servient to eco­nomic progress and con­ve­nience. Al­ready there’s grow­ing fa­tigue and frus­tra­tion among cit­i­zens who see their gov­ern­ment slid­ing back to busi­ness as usual, and a lack of ac­count­abil­ity at high lev­els.

“I’m tired of talk­ing about the Se­wol be­cause it’s ob­vi­ous that noth­ing has changed be­cause of it,” said Choi Chul- su, a 36- yearold of­fice worker in Seoul. “It wasn’t sup­posed to be all about help­ing fam­i­lies over­come their grief. It was also about the gov­ern­ment and so­ci­ety learn­ing from the ac­ci­dent and ex­e­cut­ing those lessons. But noth­ing has been done there.”

The gov­ern­ment blamed the coun­try’s dead­li­est mar­itime dis­as­ter in decades on over­loaded, poorly se­cured cargo and a botched res­cue. But South Korea is di­vided over who’s re­spon­si­ble, and a planned in­ves­ti­ga­tion by a spe­cial com­mit­tee has stalled amid wran­gling over money and per­son­nel.

Au­thor­i­ties, mean­while, have come up with mea­sures they hope will pre­vent sim­i­lar ac­ci­dents, in­clud­ing re­plac­ing the coast guard with a new mas­sive safety agency and trans­fer­ring author­ity to reg­u­late ship­ping from a body funded by the in­dus­try to a pub­licly funded agency.

There’s skep­ti­cism that it will be enough, or that of­fi­cials will han­dle fu­ture crises bet­ter. Since the sink­ing, the coun­try has con­tin­ued to see fa­tal ac­ci­dents that ex­pose lax safety stan­dards and aware­ness:

— A month af­ter the sink­ing, a fire set by an 81- year- old de­men­tia pa­tient killed 22 peo­ple at a hos­pi­tal ward that wasn’t equipped with sprin­klers.

— In Oc­to­ber, 16 peo­ple watch­ing an out­door con­cert were killed when the ven­ti­la­tion grate they were stand­ing on col­lapsed.

— More than 50 fish­er­men died in De­cem­ber in the frigid Ber­ing Sea, in an ac­ci­dent po­lice blamed on crewmem­bers keep­ing open a stor­age area to stash more of their catch de­spite high waves.

A public sur­vey re­leased last week showed nearly nine out of 10 South Kore­ans be­lieve public safety hasn’t im­proved since last year’s sink­ing. The tele­phone sur­vey of 1,000 adults, con­ducted by the Seoul- based Korea Re­search Cen­ter, has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or mi­nus 3.1 per­cent­age points.

Mo­tor­cy­cles and scoot­ers fre­quently zip along public side­walks; cars reg­u­larly block fire hy­drants. South Korea has the high­est rate of fa­tal mo­tor ac­ci­dents and pedes­trian deaths among de­vel­oped- world na­tions form­ing the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and Devel­op­ment, ac­cord­ing to the Korea Trans­porta­tion Safety Author­ity.

South Kore­ans work­ing in large build­ings can eas­ily go an en­tire year with­out par­tic­i­pat­ing in a sin­gle fire drill, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials from the Min­istry of Public Safety and Se­cu­rity. Fail­ure to hold a fire drill at least once a year could re­sult in a 500,000 won ( US$ 456) fine for the build­ing’s owner, but min­istry of­fi­cials said the drills are fre­quently for­mal­i­ties in­volv­ing only the build­ing’s safety manager and a few oth­ers.

Some re­cent steps to im­prove public safety have been rolled back fol­low­ing com­plaints.

Of­fi­cials in Gyeonggi prov­ince, which sur­rounds Seoul, cut the num­ber of long- dis­tance com­muter buses that al­lowed pas­sen­gers to stand in the aisles, but they then back­tracked af­ter many peo­ple com­plained that they missed their rides to and from work in Seoul.

South Korea’s at­ti­tudes to­ward safety were formed as it re­cov­ered from the dec­i­ma­tion of the 1950- 53 Korean War and rapidly re­built it­self to be­come Asia’s fourth- largest econ­omy.

“Safety is not just an is­sue of tech­nol­ogy and gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion, but also a mat­ter of so­cial be­hav­ior and moral­ity, and this is not some­thing that can be de­vel­oped over a span of just a few years,” said Park HeeKyung, a civil en­gi­neer­ing and dis­as­ter ex­pert at the Korea Ad­vanced In­sti­tute of Science and Tech­nol­ogy in Dae­jeon. “It will be more like 30 to 50 years, and we are just at the be­gin­ning of the change.”

Safety mea­sures South Korea has taken af­ter the Se­wol dis­as­ter in­clude the hir­ing of out­side ex­perts to over­see the ship reg­u­lat­ing body, re­quir­ing all cargo to be pro­cessed elec­tron­i­cally and truck driv­ers to sub­mit cer­tifi­cates on the weight of their cargo.

New laws set for July will also set up harsher pun­ish­ment for crewmem­bers who don’t try hard enough to res­cue pas­sen­gers in need, such as pos­si­ble life­time pri­son sen­tences for cap­tains. They also al­low au­thor­i­ties to re­voke li­censes of ship op­er­a­tors found re­spon­si­ble for big ac­ci­dents.

Lee Yun- cheol, 41, a co- head of a ship­ping com­pany, said mon­i­tor­ing safety stan­dards on pas­sen­ger ships on do­mes­tic routes is “hap­less and weak,” and more in­ten­sive check­ing and a larger num­ber of in­spec­tors are needed.

State pros­e­cu­tors have ar­rested nearly 140 peo­ple, in­clud­ing Se­wol crewmem­bers and ferry com­pany em­ploy­ees, over al­le­ga­tions that they con­trib­uted to the sink­ing, and some have been sen­tenced to decades in pri­son. But many be­reaved fam­ily mem­bers and their sup­port­ers de­mand a more thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion and say high­er­level of­fi­cials have not been held accountable.

The par­ents of some stu­dent vic­tims have been camp­ing out at a main Seoul plaza for months in protest, drawing crit­i­cism from con­ser­va­tives who say the par­ents are there il­le­gally, and who want the coun­try to move on from the dis­as­ter. In Septem­ber, some counter- pro­test­ers gorged them­selves on hot­dogs and pizza in front of rel­a­tives of vic­tims who were on a hunger strike.

“The be­reaved fam­i­lies have lost their senses,” said con­ser­va­tive ac­tivist Park Wan- seok. “The Se­wol in­ci­dent was just a traf­fic ac­ci­dent that hap­pened at sea.”

Some con­ser­va­tives also op­pose the fam­i­lies’ de­mands that the Se­wol be pulled from the sea, say­ing money shouldn’t be spent on rais­ing a civil­ian ship. Public sur­veys show a ma­jor­ity of South Kore­ans want the Se­wol to be re­cov­ered, at an es­ti­mated cost of US$ 91 mil­lion to US$ 137 mil­lion.

Fam­i­lies of the vic­tims re­cently re­jected the gov­ern­ment’s fi­nan­cial com­pen­sa­tion plans, say­ing they want to first see the ship lifted from the seafloor and a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the sink­ing. Some other South Korean also are frus­trated by what they view as gov­ern­ment in­ac­tion.

“The sink­ing of Se­wol rep­re­sented the fail­ure of an en­tire sys­tem and cul­ture,” said Lee Sang- joon, a 33- year- old Seoul res­i­dent. “But the gov­ern­ment seems un­will­ing to care­fully look into this.”

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