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[Ferry Disaster] Government under fire for flawed response

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Published : 2014-04-20 20:36
Updated : 2014-04-20 20:36

Korea faces an unconventional threat that has long been predicted for this new era in which the enemy remains hidden and can cause social disruption like that following the devastating ferry accident off the southwest coast.

This enemy has turned out to be none other than business corruption, selfishness and rivalry between government agencies ― not the strong tides, rain and poor underwater visibility that have hampered the nation’s search operations for hundreds of missing passengers.

These ingrained social evils, which some sociologists and psychologists said have set off a chain reaction or domino effect, have weakened the government’s preemptive measures and crisis response, while increasing the amount of damage suffered by average working-class citizens.

The administration of President Park Geun-hye, who is undergoing a leadership test in the face of one of Korea’s biggest disasters, has mobilized government agencies, response teams and divers at the scene of the accident largely caused by the Sewol ferry owner Chonghaejin Marine Co. and its captain Lee Joon-seok.

However, no one seems to be playing a central role, including the Ministry of Security and Public Administration’s Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters, in managing the incident.

The center, by law, should have been the control tower for such an accident, but it came ill-prepared for the job as shown by its lack of human resources and Security Minister Kang Byung-kyu’s inexperience in crisis management, according to critics.

The Prime Minister’s Office, political analysts said, did not help the situation by having Prime Minister Chung Hong-won try to step in and take command, as this only made the CDSC look irrelevant.

People cannot help but ask who is in charge as they see agencies passing the responsibility to one another and making serious blunders over figures such as the number of missing passengers and deaths.
The left photo shows Lee Joon-seok, captain of the sunken Sewol, right after he was saved by a rescue boat on Wednesday. The right photo shows him being arrested on Saturday. (Yonhap)

The Korea Coast Guard, with limited technological resources, seems to be heading the operation at the moment.

“(The government’s) emergency response was a mess as there were no proper countermeasures in (the first) place,” professor Yee Jae-yeol of Seoul National University’s department of sociology told a local news service.

Lee, who defined the current situation as an “incubated accident,” added that this third-world style disaster was made possible through the authorities’ focus on reducing costs and failure to share information with one another on preemptive measures.

The government has so far added to the chaos and drawn criticism as hope fades over the possibility of survivors trapped in the sunken ferry.

Almost a week has passed since Korea deployed hundreds of police, Navy SEALs and civilian divers, with naval and police vessels surrounding the accident scene. However, weather and sea conditions have been working against their efforts to find the missing.

The marine police also acknowledged that they did not have the proper underwater equipment to carry out the mission.

“Private divers (who supported the search operation) had more advanced gear than the police,” said the marine police.

The Korean Navy also was unable to deploy its new rescue vessel, built by Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering and equipped with unmanned submarines, as the Ministry of National Defense said it has not yet been tested for efficiency.

Although unmanned underwater vehicles may have been more suitable for the rescue mission, Korea did not have any that were small enough to perform the necessary yet difficult task.

By Park Hyong-ki (hkp@heraldcorp.com)

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