Seventy-eight days have passed since the Sewol ferry with 476 people aboard sank on April 16. As many as 293 people, mostly students of a high school on a trip, drowned, with 11 more still missing.
It is not the first deadly maritime accident in Korea. On Oct. 10, 1993, the overcrowded and overloaded Seohae ferry capsized and sank, killing 292 of its 362 passengers.
Accidents happen. Mother Nature and human error both cause them. But human casualties should be prevented or kept to a minimum. Why are such terrible accidents repeated? How could we prevent them from causing a large death toll?
If the Sewol captain had not ordered passengers to stay in their cabins, but to come out on deck, many more of the passengers ― perhaps all of them ― might have been saved. He and his crew members’ behavior was abominable and unpardonable. There is no question about that.
But would the ship have sunk if a different captain had taken charge of it at the time of accident?
The captain’s senseless acts are just the tip of an iceberg. The incident has revealed wide-ranging and deep-rooted evils. President Park Geun-hye deplored them and vowed to “reconstruct the state.” She reshuffled the Cabinet and will establish a new overarching safety agency, abolishing the Coast Guard.
All measures to secure maritime safety will be concluded eventually in the form of laws and regulations.
Korea has the Maritime Safety Law, but the problem is that it is porous regarding safety.
Clause 1 of article 58 of the Maritime Safety Act stipulates that the maritime minister “may” have ministry officials check vessel safety. Safety checks are not mandatory for the government.
Clause 2 of the same article states that an official who tries to check vessel safety shall give a seven-day written notice to the captain, vessel owner and private businesses about the check.
Who would bother to check vessel safety under these regulations? Will a safety inspection be effective when the inspector is required to give a seven-day notice to those who are to be inspected?
Establishing regulations is the first step to securing safety. The second step should be to prevent revisions which may weaken or disable safety systems, such as the seven-day notice clause added in 2006.
In 2009, the Lee Myung-bak government extended the age limit of a ferry to a maximum 30 years on the condition that the ship passes the vessel check criteria. It was an exception to the standard age of 20 years and under stipulated in the maritime law. Vessel operators had persistently demanded the easing of the age limit.
Taking advantage of the revision of the age limit clause, Cheonghaejin Marine Co. bought and operated the Sewol, which was built in 1994. If the government had not weakened the age limit, it might not have purchased the 18-year-old ferry from Japan in 2012.
Article 22 of the Marine Transportation Act, last revised in 2013 under President Park’s deregulation drive, stipulates that vessel operators should receive guidance and oversight on the safety operations from the vessel operation manager, who is to be appointed by “their association.” The government has put the fox in charge of the henhouse.
As far as maritime accidents are concerned, vessel owners, operators and crew members cannot be trusted. A single government entity should do everything to prevent them, whether it is the police or the national safety agency.
Vessel operators will lobby continuously to have laws revised in their favor. Presidents will push government officials continuously to deregulate. Of course, the president must mean bona fide deregulation for the sake of the people, but deregulation is likely to become competitive and go the extra distance, handing over even more oversight to industry.
The core of the ambitious project to “reconstruct the state” lies in separating the government from industry. But it should do so while deregulating correctly. It requires a delicate balancing act.
As time goes by without major accidents, complacency will likely set in. Government-industry ties will likely turn cozy. If safety laws are revised in such a situation, the revisions may favor industry. Then, tragic history may repeat itself.
Accidents will happen at sea, just as planes sometimes fall out of the sky. The president and the government should stay vigilant against business lobbying and at the same time push deregulation rightly.
By Chun Sung-woo
Chun Sung-woo is lifestyle desk editor of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org ― Ed.