What will it take for Korea to upgrade its safety culture? The question is being raised again as the entire nation is gripped with sorrow over the tragic sinking on Wednesday of the ferry Sewol off the southern coast.
Among the 476 passengers on board, only 174 have been rescued, with the remainder dead or still missing. But the disaster could have been avoided had the ship’s crew and the company that operated it paid more attention to safety.
Investigators have tentatively concluded that the main cause of the tragedy was the crew’s navigational errors. Yet underlying them was a woeful lack of safety awareness.
Gross indifference to safety, coupled with the government’s frustratingly slow rescue operations, also contributed to boosting the death toll, making the shipwreck one of the nation’s worst maritime disasters.
The 6,825-ton ferry, the largest of its kind in Korea, was on its way from Incheon to Jejudo Island when it capsized in waters off Jindo Island, an area with the second-strongest tidal currents in Korea.
But Incheon-Jeju ferries normally change direction here. The ill-fated ship also altered course here. But investigators suspect that it did so too abruptly, without slowing down, in a narrow sea lane between islands.
As a result, the vessel lost balance and began to list. To make matters worse, the 180 vehicles and 1,100 tons of cargo on board were not tightly fastened. The sharp turn pushed them to one side, which further threw the ship off balance.
At the time of the accident, the ship was being steered by a third mate with only one year of experience. Investigators found that it was the first time that the inexperienced female officer attempted to navigate the risky waters.
Passing through such a dangerous zone requires caution. Therefore, the captain should have guided the novice officer. But he was outside the steering room when the ship was thrown out of whack, illustrating his indifference to safety.
Had the captain and other crew members taken proper safety measures after they realized the ship was in trouble, they could have minimized the casualties. But they behaved in a totally misguided and irresponsible way.
After sending a distress call to the Coast Guard, the crew repeatedly told the passengers, mostly high school students on a field trip to Jejudo Island, to stay in the cabins. But this proved to be a terribly misguided instruction.
It did not take long for water to begin to gush into the cabins as the ship continued to tilt. The crew finally told the passengers to abandon the vessel. But it was already too late. Those inside the cabins could not move because the ferry was too tilted.
The crew should have tried to rescue the trapped passengers. But many crew members, including the captain, abandoned the ship, leaving the passengers behind. They totally forgot their responsibility toward passengers.
What annoys us most is that about 70 percent of the 29 crew members escaped the ship safely, while among the 325 students of Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, only 23 percent were rescued.
On Friday, prosecutors arrested the captain, the third mate and the steersman who operated the wheel under the novice officer, on charges of carelessly navigating the ship and abandoning it in danger.
The shipping company that operated the ferry also showed a lamentable lack of safety awareness. In the first place, it failed to conduct emergency safety drills for the ship’s crew. The ship had an emergency manual but the crew did not follow it.
The company must have been negligent in checking the ship’s safety equipment as well, given that only one of the 46 lifeboats attached to the vessel could be launched.
The company remodeled the ferry’s stern after purchasing it from Japan two years ago. It expanded the cabin to accommodate more passengers. This could have moved the ship’s center of gravity to a higher position, making it more likely to topple over when tilted.
The ferry disaster has also demonstrated how unorganized the government’s emergency response system remains. Had the Coast Guard moved promptly in the initial stage of the crisis, it could have reduced the number of casualties.
The Coast Guard rescue team arrived late and the number of rescuers was insufficient. So it just rescued passengers and crew members who had gotten out of the sinking ship, without attempting to go inside to help the trapped passengers evacuate.
Officials from various public agencies annoyed the families of the missing by working slowly and irresponsibly. So much so that the parents of the missing students issued a statement denouncing the government’s ineffectual rescue efforts.
Since her inauguration, President Park Geun-hye has stressed that people’s safety is one of her top priorities. To demonstrate her commitment to safety, she changed the name of the Ministry of Public Administration and Security to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration.
But it takes more than changing a ministry’s name to make Korea a safer society. The government needs to reform its emergency management system.
More importantly, the government should strive to enhance Korea’s safety culture. Korea cannot become a safe place to live without first improving people’s safety awareness.
What the nation needs to do is to upgrade its “pali pali” or “hurry hurry” culture, a legacy of Korea’s rapid industrialization that began in the early 1960s.
Former President Park Chung-hee, father of the incumbent president, sought to achieve economic growth as fast as possible to win the competition with North Korea. He pursued economic development in the same fashion as the military pursues the defeat of the enemy.
Each year, he set an ambitious growth target and employed whatever means available to attain it. As getting things done assumed paramount importance, speed and efficiency often took precedence over safety.
The late president’s approach has taken root in every corner of Korean society, fostering the “hurry-up mentality” among Koreans.
Yet the “pali pali” culture has both merits and demerits. Some experts assert that it has helped Korean companies become more competitive. They also cite it as a factor behind Korea’s rise as a global IT powerhouse.
However, it is also indisputable that the hurry-hurry mindset has bred indifference to safety, the underlying cause of the unending series of manmade disasters in Korea.
To make Korea a safer place to live, the hurry-hurry culture needs to be revamped. It should be brought home to people that they should not sacrifice safety even if they are in a mad rush to get things done fast.
By Yu Kun-ha
Yu Kun-ha is chief editorial writer of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com. ― Ed.