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.
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.