The deadly sinking of the Sewol ferry off the southern coast has put President Park Geun-hye to a major leadership test.
In the first place, Park is facing the task of placating the public’s mounting anger and frustration over the manmade disaster, in which some 300 of the 476 passengers on board died or went missing.
Then she has to reform the nation’s disorganized safety system to prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future. This task involves more than just setting up a new government agency in charge of safety.
Another major challenge is to reform officialdom. Civil servants exist to serve the people. But the tragedy has shown that there are too many civil servants who are simply incompetent, irresponsible or indifferent to carrying out their given missions.
These are just some of the tasks Park should grapple with to make Korea a safer place to live. They are tough challenges, to say the least. It will take more than a Cabinet reshuffle to meet them.
On Tuesday, she declared her resolve to take up the challenges. First, she made an apology to the deceased, their family members and the public for the government’s failure to prevent the disaster.
She also apologized for failing to respond to the maritime emergency properly in the initial stages and conduct well-organized search and rescue operations thereafter.
Park’s apology, however, was not enough to soothe the anger of the public and the family members of the victims, which has begun to boil over. She needs to speed up reforms to ease their wrath.
Regarding the retooling of the nations’ ineffectual safety system, Park said the government would create a new agency, tentatively dubbed the National Safety Administration, under the prime minister’s office and empower it to deal with both manmade and natural disasters.
Currently, manmade disasters are handled by the Ministry of Security and Public Administration, while natural disasters are left to the National Emergency Management Agency.
Yet creating a new agency alone cannot be the solution. It will be useless, as is the case with the Security Ministry, unless it is staffed with competent experts in disaster response. The government needs to foster specialists in this field.
More importantly, the government needs to enhance safety culture, which requires changing Korea’s “hurry, hurry” culture. This mentality is so deeply ingrained in the Korean mindset that it will take time to reshape it.
To enhance people’s safety awareness, the government should set an example by discarding the attitude that everything must be done quickly. It should ensure that the “safety first” philosophy is built into the entire administrative system.
The ferry tragedy has brought into focus the negative aspects of Korean officialdom, especially the corrupt ties between government officials and the industrial sectors they regulate.
On Tuesday, Park told officials to hammer out measures to fundamentally sever the cozy relationships between regulators and the regulated.
Following her instruction, the government announced that former officials of the Finance Ministry and the Financial Services Commission would be banned from taking posts in financial companies.
The nation’s civil servants need to change their mindset. They should discard the anachronistic idea that they are above citizens and that their job is to govern, not serve, the people.
On Park’s reform agenda, there is one more task. She needs to bring home to citizens that they also have to pull their weight, wherever they are and whatever they do for a living. The ferry accident would not have occurred in the first place had the captain and crew carried out their duties faithfully.