The ferry disaster off the southern coast has laid bare the nation’s utter unpreparedness for major disasters. Although the government launched a new disaster response system in February after a reform last year, it has proven to be totally ineffective in handling the maritime tragedy.
The sinking of the Sewol ferry has also brought into focus the safety problems of coastal liners stemming largely from the small scale and poor financial status of their operators and the superficial nature of the government’s safety checks. These problems need to be addressed promptly to avoid similar maritime disasters in the future.
Last year, the government overhauled the disaster response system to demonstrate its commitment to making Korea a safer place to live.
Previously, the National Emergency Management Agency was responsible for handling both natural and manmade disasters. Under the new system, the Ministry of Security and Public Administration is in charge of dealing with manmade disasters.
The wisdom of distinguishing between natural and manmade disasters was disputed at the time the relevant law was revised. Yet the government insisted on separating the two and transferring the management of manmade disasters to the ministry.
So the ministry set up a central safety control committee one hour after the Coast Guard received a distress signal from the Sewol ferry. The panel was supposed to serve as the control tower for various disaster response and emergency rescue agencies.
The committee, however, lacked the experts to coordinate the rescue efforts of the organizations involved. So all it did was add up the number of casualties reported by different agencies. Even this simple task proved to be beyond its capacity. It caused confusion by providing inaccurate tallies.
In place of the ineffectual committee, the Coast Guard had to act as a control tower. But it also made a fatal mistake in the initial stage of responding to the emergency.
Although the ship was sinking rapidly, the Coast Guard rescue team focused on rescuing passengers who had gotten out of the cabins. It mobilized a small number of divers more than half an hour after the ship was almost entirely under water. It missed the golden window of opportunity to rescue the passengers who were trapped in the cabins.
Now, the government needs to retool the emergency management system and beef up the Coast Guard’s disaster response staff and equipment.
The ruling Saenuri Party is reportedly considering creating a new, independent disaster management agency that would handle both natural and manmade disasters. This idea deserves consideration, given that climate change will increase the frequency and severity of natural disasters.
The government also needs to address the safety problems of vulnerable operators of coastal liners. Most coastal shipping companies are small and in poor financial shape. Many of their ships are obsolete but they do not have enough money to replace them with new ones.
Due to financial constraints and poor safety awareness, many companies do not practice emergency safety drills as required by law. The operator of the Sewol ferry was no exception. Its navigation manual lists various safety drills but it did not practice them last year.
Some experts suggest that the government provide subsidies to these shipping companies, just as the Seoul Metropolitan Government subsidizes private bus companies. They note that Scotland subsidizes coastal shipping companies, deeming their services indispensable.
Subsidies would improve the safety standards as well as the financial status of shipping companies. Yet the question is whether the government has the money.