A few weeks ago, placards with colored block letters appeared at the front and rear gates of my apartment complex: “Congratulations (for) Passing the Precision Safety Checkup for Reconstruction!” Similar signs on large white sheets were also posted on the walls and fences of nearby apartments. It is not clear who posted them but security guards say that the apartment management office did the advertising.
Of course, I know what the placards mean and why the landlords felt justified spending money on the display to inform the residents and passersby that the complex is now qualified for a reconstruction project. Reconstruction of old apartments is believed to bring money to the owners.
Experts commissioned by Seoul City Hall concluded through their safety inspection of my and nearby apartment complexes that these structures built some 30 years ago were “unsafe for extended use.” Apartment residents are aware that the results of the precision inspection do not mean that their housing block is so obsolete that it should be evacuated in a given time. It is only the first step in the arduous process of reconstruction, remodeling or renewal, hence the colorful congratulatory placards at my apartment gates.
Here, we are trading some safety concerns for an expected financial gain.
Since the tragic Sewol sinking, we have spent the past month in bottomless grief and remorse. People have deplored the lack of safety precautions in all sectors of society, which will cause more disasters on land, air and sea. On the government level, a central office will be created with the authority to control public safety-related functions in all administrative agencies. Civic groups will stage public campaigns to ensure that safety is upheld in every nook and cranny of society, indefinitely they assure us.
Yet, in the gloomy aftermath of the sea disaster, we need to take a closer look at ourselves, the everyday goings-on around us, to see just how much concern we give to “safety.” The Republic of Korea may be among the more advanced nations in terms of market economy and democratic politics, but we should correctly realize that the nation still is in a state of transition and volatility, with “survival” coming first and “safety” next.
This is not to offer an excuse for the chain of corruption between businesses, regulators and oversight agencies that has allowed for a culture of sloppiness in construction, transportation and other service sectors. This is to point out that, while we struggled for survival first during the war, then during the post-war destitution and disorder, and finally amidst the competition of the rigorous industrialization process, most other social values, including safety, were a luxury.
Korea is not Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, but the concept of safety here is perceived differently than it is in Switzerland, Canada or the United States. As threats of renewed war persist, with the possibility of artillery barrages, rockets and missiles flying into Seoul from across the border only 45 kilometers to the north, concerns about the safety of coastal liners, trains, airlines or apartment complexes tend to lose urgency.
Over the past decades, we have slept under a boulder hanging from a thin straw rope. Besides the security situation, problems in the fields of government, politics, economics and even education distracted us from the issue of safety. In short, most of our national institutions have sailed in their own Sewol through narrow channels in choppy waters all these years. The capsizing of the coastal liner warned the nation of the consequences of this great negligence.
Look at the partisan politics since the exit of military dictatorship: Power shifted back and forth every 10 years, from the conservatives, then to the liberals and now back to the right for the past six years, causing a zigzag in national orientation and major policy shifts with the change of skippers. The peaceful transitions of power could have been a model of emerging democracy, if only weak internal leadership in both camps had not had to change party names, structures and platforms before and after every election.
Operation of the National Assembly, born under the 1987 Constitution, continued to deteriorate with legislative productivity and prestige declining in each new term and session. Until last-minute passages of several economic bills at the end of April after the Sewol tragedy, the Assembly had nearly totally abandoned its lawmaking mission for several months.
On the administrative side, frequent Cabinet reshuffles left state affairs in the hands of career bureaucrats who were resistant to reform and prone to corruption. We have had almost as many prime ministers as the number of years given to each administration. The incumbent, Chung Hong-won, is to go when the Sewol rescue operation is wrapped up, assuming responsibility for the messy early handling of the emergency, yet passing the average service term.
The educational system has remained the most unstable area of national affairs. The method of recruiting students for colleges has undergone major changes 16 times and numerous minor changes, with yet another big shift to integrate humanities and sciences courses scheduled for 2017. We all know about the correlation between the rigors of college entrance and the high suicide rate among Korean youths, but little could be done to save the precious lives although it is one of the gravest human rights issues we face.
The catalogue of factors that contribute to contemporary Koreans’ general insensitivity toward safety issues is long and complex, which leaves us with a sense of futility. Like the fabulous “Unification is a bonanza” slogan these days, should we just keep reciting “safety first,” hoping and praying that all the detractors go away as the nation moves ahead on the path of economic advancement?
Yes, safety is a matter of human rights, my rights and your rights. If we want to do something to compensate for the loss of 300 lives in the Sewol, we should first stop playing with the word “safety” as in the procedures for the reconstruction of apartments. If city authorities are to permit the rebuilding of a housing complex for economic reasons, they should do so simply on the basis of urban redesign schemes, instead of using the false pretext of a “precision safety inspection.” It is a reverse example of the port regulators’ stamping the word “safe” on the Sewol’s papers.
By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org ― Ed.