[Viewpoint] Taean reveals a cold-hearted state

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[Viewpoint] Taean reveals a cold-hearted state

The catastrophe of the oil spill off the coast of Taean in the West Sea in early December 2007 is still vivid in our memory.

The collision of a barge and the oil tanker Hebei Spirit resulted in a serious spillage of oil into the clean waters of the West Sea, and local residents were stunned by the devastating disaster. In response, 1.23 million volunteers helped clean up the polluted beaches.

Three years have passed since the incident. The environment of the West Sea is gradually recovering.

However, local residents who used to make a living from the sea have not yet returned to their normal lives. The struggles of the people of Taean have been completely ignored for the last three years.

Since the incident, the Taean people have sought claims for damages in the international courts, and special laws passed by the government or the operation of an emergency committee did not do much to improve the lives of the local residents.

The government made plans to respond to the crisis, but there were few substantial efforts made nor was there a visible post-crisis management response.

Of course, the Blue House and the National Assembly frequently stressed the importance of keeping the livelihood of the nation stable. However, despite the emphasis on public welfare, the people of Taean remain neglected by the administration.

Some might ask whether they are entitled to receive compensation for damage. Of course, they are.

But the procedure for requesting compensation is not clear. In addition, the level of compensation is trifling.

Over 60,000 claims for damage compensation were filed with the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds as a result of the oil spill off the coast of Taean. Of them, only 14,000 cases have been considered and actual damages were rewarded in some 9,000 cases.

Among the cases with confirmed damages, only one tenth received compensation.

It took over three years to attain that much progress, so if you use simple math, it will take over 20 years to determine compensation for the remaining 90 percent of the cases.

What makes the situation problematic is the reality that the residents are desperately waiting for compensation even when the prospect of receiving it is so uncertain and distant.

The Taean residents are not responsible for the disaster and the damages, but they are solely liable for the losses for now.

Government assistance does not cover the residents who are struggling to make a living and support their families after losing their jobs as a result of the disaster.

Those who have had a hard time recovering their livelihoods because of health and financial constraints are not eligible for government aid either.

Of course, ever since the disaster struck Taean, the government has announced measures to help those affected by the oil spill.

Over 300 billion won ($262.11 million) was set aside to help boost the local economy devastated by the catastrophe, but as of 2011, only 6 billion won of the budget has been spent.

The 2011 government budget program that was passed by the National Assembly, and that cut spending on health checkups for Taean residents, amounted to 1.4 billion won. The Special Committee on the Oil Spill Disaster, presided over by the Prime Minister, has not had a single meeting since 2008.

Moreover, the government is considering imposing overdue interest on loans provided to the local residents to help them get back to normal.

I cannot help but ask the government whether the overdue interest is the best thing the government can do for people who have lost their physical and mental strength as a result of the disaster.

It is ambiguous what the government and politicians mean when they say they are working to improve public welfare.

How can the government explain the reality that it harasses people rather than supporting them after such a disaster? Who will protect vulnerable citizens from accidents and disasters from now on?

If a second and third catastrophe were to hit Korea, what can the government do for the people?

The unsettled questions of Taean are still buried in the chaotic discords of the National Assembly.

The government and the ruling party are desperate to promote the four-rivers restoration project, but even the dysfunctional assembly has to prioritize assistance and support for the people to guarantee a normal and adequate life.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of public administration at Pai Chai University.

By Chung Youn-chung
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