It can hardly be possible to fathom, let alone help relieve, the agony of families of the victims in last week’s sinking of a ferry with 476 passengers on board, many of whom were teenagers on a school field trip.
For most grieving parents, the 250 dead or missing students are their only sons or daughters, to whose successful growth they have devoted virtually everything they have. One of the missing children was brought up by his grandmother after he had lost his parents when he was young.
It reflected their frustration and anger at what they saw as an uncoordinated, inefficient and insufficient search operation that a group of family members announced they would march from the rescue center on the southwestern island of Jindo to the presidential office in Seoul on Sunday to convey their complaints.
Prime Minister Chung Hong-won was hit by a water bottle thrown by relatives of missing passengers when he earlier visited their shelter at a gym on the island.
In the eyes of some observers, their unrestrained fury may seem unduly directed at the government, paying little attention to the more immediate responsibility of the coastal liner that operated the ill-fated ship. It may be said that the outburst of anger shows Koreans’ inclination to fully vent their emotions and distrust in the government, which dates back to Japan’s colonial rule in the early 20th century and the authoritarian regimes that suppressed people for decades after the country’s liberation.
But this view cannot be a reason for shifting the focus from the poor handling by relevant government agencies of the nation’s worst maritime tragedy in 20 years. The confusing initial response was followed by the establishment of a massive pan-ministerial rescue center headed by the prime minister, which is still accused of failing to properly act as a control tower due to the lack of experienced disaster experts and efficient coordination between different agencies.
A prompt and well-organized rescue operation during the crucial time shortly after the ship reported its problem could have saved more lives. More fundamentally, the tragedy might have been avoided if government officials had been thorough in overseeing the ferry operator, which had many other troubles at sea in recent years.
The problems with the government’s handling of the ferry disaster should be understood as reflecting the lax discipline and unprepared posture of the bureaucracy that is negligent about its duties and quick to pass the buck to others.
Park might well be angered with the public servants who have made her campaign pledge to build a safe and secure society sound hollow. In a briefing to her in February, the Ministry of Security and Public Administration said it had set up a nationwide system for managing disasters and emergencies, which only proved ineffectual in handling the ferry sinking.
It seems necessary to reshuffle her Cabinet to tighten the discipline of the administration and enhance the sense of responsibility among civil servants. Park expressed her determination Monday by pledging to “oust public servants interested only in keeping their positions.” Her resolve must bring fundamental changes in the ways officials carry out their duties if the government is to avoid being ruined by public distrust.