In a meeting with her senior secretaries last week, President Park Geun-hye emphasized the envisioned ministry of national safety should be given sufficient authority to act as the “control tower” in disaster management. She said the head of the ministry should assume the role of what she described as a “minister for special missions” and all other government agencies should comply with requests from the minister in responding to a disaster such as the April 16 deadly sinking of the Sewol. The president even raised the need for regulations to discipline officials for refusing to comply with measures requested by the minister.
Park made the remarks in response to concerns that the new ministry would not be effective in preventing and managing disasters if it was staffed and operated similarly to existing organizations in charge of safety matters. The establishment of the ministry was a key part of a set of measures she unveiled a week ago to fix the problems that led to the ferry disaster, which claimed more than 300 lives.
The poor handling of the maritime accident, especially in its initial phase, sorely revealed the incapacity and inefficiency of relevant government agencies. The lack of a function to coordinate their work caused the response to be more confusing and botched.
Most people now seem to agree with Park’s proposal to establish a new ministry tasked with acting as a strong control tower in the event of a disaster and leading the work to upgrade the nation’s safety system. Past experiences, however, show us that merely making institutional and systematic changes is not sufficient to build a safer society. It is more important to operate a new institution or an altered system in a way totally different from previous manners framed by exclusive and negligent bureaucracy.
President Park herself seems to have learned a lesson from her betrayed trust in what she believed was a dutiful and efficient officialdom. After taking office in February last year, she renamed the Ministry of Public Administration and Security to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration, strengthening its role in disaster management. The ministry, however, bungled the response to the ferry disaster, along with maritime police whose botched initial rescue work dashed hopes of saving more lives. In her statement to the nation last week, Park announced plans to downsize the ministry and disband the organization of maritime police, transferring their key functions to the envisioned ministry in charge of safety.
Giving the ministry substantial mandate to instruct other government agencies what to do in response to a disaster is a prerequisite for avoiding a repeat of the problems revealed through the ferry tragedy. The ministry should enhance its flexibility and expertise by recruiting a large number of specialists from the private sector. It is also required to have its staff receive intensive on-site training rather than being tied to their desks to sharpen their capability to respond to an emergency.
But there is still a limit to what the government can do to prevent and respond to disasters. Enhancing citizens’ safety consciousness will be essential to ensure that a tragedy like the ferry sinking will not recur over the long term.
The launch of civic groups dedicated to safety issues would serve this purpose. Their roles would also help keep government organizations and staff tasked with disaster management from being expanded beyond the optimal level.
Hundreds of civic and religious groups formed an ad hoc council last Thursday to seek the truth behind the ferry disaster and discuss related measures that should be taken. Over the weekend, the group organized mass candlelight vigils nationwide to commemorate the victims. Their activity should lead to a persistent movement toward making safety consciousness take firm root in the mind of every Korean.