Af­ter the Se­wol ferry tragedy, doubts re­main over safety over­haul chances


Fol­low­ing last year’s deadly Se­wol dis­as­ter, the South Korean gov­ern­ment has worked to en­hance safety mea­sures. How­ever, de­spite its ef­forts, re­cur­ring ac­ci­dents have peo­ple ques­tion­ing how much has changed since the tragedy.

The sink­ing of the Se­wol ferry re­vealed South Korea’s nearly in­con­ceiv­able ca­pac­ity to deal with large-scale dis­as­ters. While the ship lay on its side for over an hour, nearly two-thirds of the 461 peo­ple on­board were killed as the crew fled telling the pas­sen­gers to stay on­board. False re­ports were re­layed to au­thor­i­ties and the coast guard failed to ur­gently con­duct res­cue op­er­a­tions or even di­rect pas­sen­gers to leave the ves­sel.

Even as Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye was urg­ing her of­fi­cials to “make sure not one life was lost,” the ship cap­sized, mak­ing res­cue op­er­a­tions vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble.

The lack of a con­trol tower re­sulted in un­co­or­di­nated res­cue op­er­a­tions, which prompted Park to cre­ate a new Min­istry of Public Se­cu­rity and Safety. It took con­trol of mar­itime traf­fic con­trol re­spon­si­bil­i­ties from the Min­istry of Oceans and Fish­eries, and safety du­ties from the Min­istry of Safety and Public Ad­min­is­tra­tion. The min­istry also took con­trol of the func­tions of the dis­banded Korea Coast Guard.

Last month, the Trade Min­istry an­nounced it would al­lo­cate 3.1 tril­lion won for safety checks and re­pairs to fa­cil­i­ties, up 10 per­cent from the year be­fore.

The Se­wol in­ci­dent un­veiled a cor­rup­tion net­work across public and pri­vate sec­tors, which pro­pelled the an­ti­cor­rup­tion bill — which had been pending at the Na­tional As­sem­bly for two years — to be passed.

In spite of the gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts, a se­ries of ac­ci­dents in re­cent months have thrown up ques­tions whether South Korean so­ci­ety is safer.

Doubts have been raised whether the newly cre­ated Safety Min­istry ef­fec­tively car­ried out its role dur­ing the sink­ing of fish­ing boat Ory­ong 501 in the Ber­ing Sea off Rus­sia’s east coast in De­cem­ber — which left 27 sailors in­clud­ing six Kore­ans dead. The new min­istry vir­tu­ally failed its first test as the na­tion’s con­trol tower. A re­sponse team was cre­ated at the Oceans Min­istry four hours af­ter first get­ting in­for­ma­tion amid con­fu­sion over whose re­spon­si­bil­ity it was to han­dle such ac­ci­dents.

The gov­ern­ment ended up dis­patch­ing the res­cuers four days af­ter the in­ci­dent.

The op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers crit­i­cized the Safety Min­istry, say­ing its role was re­duced to merely re­quest­ing the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment to con­duct a res­cue op­er­a­tion. Even Safety Min­is­ter Park In-yong ad­mit­ted his min­istry was a “lit­tle late” in deal­ing with the dis­as­ter.

More re­cently, in last month’s camp­ing site fire that killed five peo­ple, reg­u­la­tions re­gard­ing fire ex­tin­guish­ers in­side the camp were ig­nored.

‘One-time cam­paign’

Many have raised con­cerns that the na­tion­wide em­pha­sis on safety may end up be­ing a one-time cam­paign. A re­cent sur­vey by Gyeonggi Re­search In­sti­tute showed that 54.1 per­cent of re­spon­dents said “safety aware­ness and dis­as­ter man­age­ment in South Korea has not im­proved since the Se­wol in­ci­dent.”

The death of over 200 high school stu­dents left the coun­try stunned, and au­thor­i­ties and me­dia alike clam­ored for school safety. Last year, Hwanil High School in cen­tral Seoul was thrust into the lime­light af­ter it was re­vealed that stu­dents were ex­posed to haz­ards, since the en­trance to a nearby park­ing lot was made ad­ja­cent to the path stu­dents walk to get to school. A year later, the school has all but dis­ap­peared into ob­scu­rity.

Data shows that de­spite the gov­ern­ment’s em­pha­sis on stu­dent safety and the me­dia frenzy that fol­lowed the Se­wol in­ci­dent, there has been lit­tle progress in the of­fi­cials’ ef­fort to re­duce school­re­lated ac­ci­dents.

Rep. Kang Eun-hee of the Saenuri Party pointed out that the num­ber of ac­ci­dents on school grounds in­creased to 116,527 in 2014, com­pared to 105,588 the year be­fore, cit­ing data by the Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry. The in­crease was even steeper than 2012-2013, when it rose from 100,365 to 105,388.

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