The grim picture of how and why the Sewol ferry capsized and sank is gradually emerging as the prosecution intensifies its investigation into the causes of the calamity.
What has been gathered from the probe so far shows that there was a combination of several immediate causes. They include ignorance of safety regulations, an irresponsible and incompetent captain and crew, and inefficient emergency response and rescue systems.
Besides these “direct” causes, there are indirect, but more fundamental problems, such as the lack of safety awareness in society along with an effective disaster prevention system, and corrupt links between the government and the shipping industry.
At the center of the collusive relationship between the government and the shipping industry are the Korean Register of Shipping (KR) and the Korea Shipping Association. The former is entrusted by the government with testing and certifying ships and the latter with routine shipment inspections.
Now prime targets of the investigation, the two organizations represent a typical case of a revolving door between the government and the shipping sector. Many of their senior posts have been taken by former government officials, mostly from ministries that supervise and regulate shipping companies.
It is hardly surprising that prosecutors are uncovering one case after another of government officials and executives of the two organizations having granted each other reciprocal favors. There is little doubt this typical regulatory capture was one of the root causes of the Sewol disaster.
There are many more revolving doors between the government and the private sector, be it in finance or construction. The Sewol tragedy has made us aware of the urgent need to shut those revolving doors.
In this regard, the Government Personnel Ethics Commission is taking the right step by moving to curb revolving-door appointments. It is another case of closing the door after the horse has bolted, but it should gain support from the government and the National Assembly.
Currently, retired civil servants must obtain government permission to seek employment at 3,960 private companies. They are subject to the same regulation as industrial associations, cooperatives and interest groups whose members include those firms. There are about 200 such industrial organizations.
Commission officials said that the 200 organizations do not include the KR and the KSA, which the government entrusted with some of its tasks related to ships. This is possible because the Civil Service Ethics Act does not require retired civil servants to get government permission when taking a position in an industrial organization engaged in government-entrusted work.
If the commission revises the relevant bylaws of the ethics act, the number of industrial organizations at which retired civil servants will have to receive government permission prior to seeking a job will increase from the current 200 to 310.
The commission is advised to not waste time seeking a revision to the bylaws of the Civil Service Act so that the measures can be put into force as soon as possible.