Not a ‘developed nation’ yet
I know the fear of darkness. I experienced it on March 11, 2011. I was on a business trip in Akita, Japan, when an earthquake hit the region, shutting off all the electricity. As night fell, Akita was wrapped in complete darkness. It was even more frightening that no one knew when the darkness would be over.
I feel heartbroken for the young students who experienced, and might still be experiencing, the fearful darkness in the Sewol ferry. They were nice kids who followed the irresponsible directions of the grown-ups to “stay put.” In Korea, you die if you follow orders and save yourself if you don’t. The children who moved to the rescue boats were the sad reality of Korea. A 6-year-old brother put his life vest on a 5-year-old named Ji-yeon, saving her. Her tears are shared by all of us. Citizens feel humiliated by such a backward accident. Whenever a major accident happens, we pledge for enhanced safety measures, only to repeat the mistakes again.
Let’s give up the title of “developed country” for now. No matter how big the Korean economy has become, we cannot confidently say Korea is a developed country when the lives of its citizens are not guaranteed. Japan is more advanced when it comes to safety, and two precedents guide us. Firstly, Japan has a safety system. In 1998, the post of deputy chief cabinet secretary for crisis management was created directly under the prime minister. The best professionals and experts who can promptly respond to all safety-related crises work for him. There are 20 detailed manuals not only for natural disasters but for maritime accidents like the Sewol Ferry incident. As soon as the first report of an accident is filed, the police, the Self Defense Forces and the local governments are connected. Control and assistance for the victims’ families are then managed. Under the integrated system, the number of missing victims does not change, and the maritime police and the Ministry of Security and Public Administration does not operate separately.
Another is awareness. Citizens feel they need to fulfill their duties and do their jobs.
On Nov. 13, 2009, the Ariake Ferry ran aground and pitched 90 degrees while it was sailing from Tokyo to Okinawa. The ship was owned by the same company that operated the Sewol ferry in Japan. Amid eight-meter (26-foot) waves, 20 crew members checked the ship after all the passengers were on the rescue boats. The captain and the last remaining seven crew jumped into the ocean. Fortunately, they were all rescued. When Captain Matsumoto, then age 49, arrived at the port, he said, “I am sorry that we could not save Ariake. But we saved all the passengers, and that’s what matters.”
*The author is the Tokyo bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 19, Page 26
By KIM HYUN-KI