The Sewol tragedy has exposed many problems within the government regarding its anti-disaster readiness and response. That the victims included hundreds of high school students on a field trip fueled public outrage at the government, from President Park Geun-hye downward.
Among the government agencies under heavy criticism, the Korea Coast Guard is in the hot seat, for ample reasons. Some of the harshest critics are even demanding the disbandment of the agency. They are not going too far, judging from what it has done since April 16.
The Coast Guard first faced denunciation for its disorganized response and ineffective rescue operations while the Sewol ferry was sinking. Its rescue teams were less effective and courageous in rescuing passengers than fishermen, who rushed to the scene, and some civilians who risked their lives to save their fellow passengers.
Then came the series of cases that fueled the already boiling public anger. A senior officer at the Jejudo Coast Guard played golf twice after the ferry sank. He was none other than the chief of the office’s aircraft unit, which has been mobilized in the Sewol search and rescue operations.
A senior Coast Guard officer in Busan leaked information about an impending prosecution raid into the Korean Register of Shipping, a prime target of a probe into the cause of the disaster. It also was found that the Coast Guard’s chief of information and investigation had been a seven-year employee of the company that preceded the operating company of the ill-fated ferry. This really stinks.
There are also suspicions that the Coast Guard attempted to cover up its misdeeds. Officers looked at data on victims’ cellphones without getting consent from their bereaved families. Some even removed memory cards and chips from the devices, many of which are believed to contain records of the last moments of those trapped in the sinking vessel.
They deserve suspicions of a cover-up attempt. At the time of the Sewol sinking, the Coast Guard reported to Cheong Wa Dae and other government offices that 33 Coast Guard and Navy vessels and six aircraft were rescuing passengers. This was a lie, since there were only one rescue ship and three helicopters.
Some might say all these episodes resulted from errors or acts of some dishonest, incompetent staff. What concerns us is that all these problems may well point to fundamental structural problems within the agency.
The Korea Coast Guard, which was created in 1953 as a police unit, was separated from the National Police Agency in 1996, with its size and jurisdiction having grown steadily over the past 61 years. Its fleet, which had only six patrol ships in 1953, now consists of 300 vessels and 27 aircraft. The 8,700-strong force spends about 1.1 trillion won a year.
This expansion was not accompanied by improved efficiency and capability. One of the biggest problems is the lack of expertise, a consequence of egregious personnel policies.
Despite separation from the national police, 11 of its 13 commissioner generals came from the NPA. Among the current 67 top officers at the senior superintendent level or higher, 17 have not had any stint aboard ships. It has created more deskbound posts than those involving maritime frontline duties at the four regional offices it has established since 2006,
Emergency rescue operations have largely been neglected. The Coast Guard’s search and rescue units are understaffed and only 18.1 billion won is earmarked for maritime safety, 1.6 percent of the agency’s total spending. Coast Guard officers have often complained about the shortage of money, but they spent about 14.5 billion won to build a golf course at an academy in Yeosu.
All things considered, one of the first works both the government and the National Assembly should do is reform the Coast Guard so that it can fulfill its mission of guarding the seas, not its own self-interests.