[Viewpoint] How safe is Korea?

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[Viewpoint] How safe is Korea?

One month has passed since Japan was hit by an incredibly powerful earthquake and tsunami. If it were just a simple natural disaster, restoration work probably would have started by now. But Japan is caught in a terrible nightmare.

The crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has cast a dark shadow over our neighbor. Farmers have been banned from planting rice in paddies near the plant, indicating that the effects of the tragedy will certainly be felt next year, even if the nuclear crisis is contained.

A spring rain came to Korea last week. Traces of radioactive material from the plant in Japan were detected in that rain and some schools in Gyeonggi ordered students to stay home, while some people argued that other cities and provinces should have taken the same measure. Then Korean authorities announced that the amount of radiation was so miniscule that year-long exposure to that level would be the equivalent of a fraction of an X-ray, but fear among the public still lingered.

Three years ago, I contributed a piece to the newspaper when public concern over the resumption of U.S. beef imports and mad cow disease began to subside.

Although I still do not agree with the commotion at the time and how the public reacted to it, I wanted Korean society to have a whole new attitude toward the issue of public safety.

I also had expectations for the energy our civil society expressed in the candlelight protests over beef imports. I thought they would serve as the driving force to improve the country’s awareness of public safety.

As radioactive elements reached Korea, society reacted extremely sensitively. We have long been concerned about our general insensitivity to safety issues, but last weeks’ reaction was fierce.

I have no intention to say that other people were unduly worried just because I trusted the authorities’ reassurances and took them as scientific truth. I didn’t view those levels of radioactivity as a health hazard. I believe there is nothing wrong about being too thorough on safety standards - whether personal or in the society as a whole.

Nuclear power plants in Korea also need strong safety standards. Although the design of Korea’s nuclear reactors and the country’s geological situation are different from those in Japan, it is clear that reinforced safety standards and well-maintained facilities are needed to prevent any future catastrophe.

Japan’s crisis is proof that safety standards based on ideas of efficiency and effectiveness from the past no longer work. Korea and other countries that operate nuclear plants must see if cost effectiveness trumped safety standards when plans for these plants were drawn up.

There is another pertinent question. We reacted extremely sensitively to miniscule doses of radioactive material from Japan last week.

But is our country all that safe?

Let me give some examples. Last year, 5,505 people died from traffic accidents, according to the Korea Transportation Safety Authority. Although the number was nearly a half that of 10 years ago, the death ratio per 10,000 cars is still 2.6 in Korea. That number is twice as high as the average of 1.3 for other OECD member countries. Among the 29 OECD members, Korea’s traffic safety is rated 27th.

The number of children killed in traffic accidents was 2.3 per 100,000 as of 2007, a far higher figure than the OECD average of 1.6.

Last year, 1,300 workers in Korea died in industrial accidents. The death ratio per 10,000 was 0.92, nearly four times higher than that of Germany (0.22) and Japan (0.23) and three times higher than in the United States (0.38).

Strangely, the rate of work-related injuries was 0.7 per 10,000 for Korea, the lowest on the list. (Germany and the United States maintain a level of about three to four.)

If Korea registers few industrial accidents but a high number of deaths from industrial mishaps, academics and the labor community conclude that employers must be covering up the nonfatal accidents.

The JoongAng Ilbo reported Dr. Lee Guk-jong’s despair over Korea’s inability to provide care to physical trauma victims. Although many have argued that the country needs serious improvements in emergency medical care, no progress has been seen.

About 33 percent of trauma patients die in Korea, though they could have been saved if they received proper emergency treatment. The figure is about 5 percent in the United States, and we should be embarrassed and ashamed at the contrast.

I have no way to explain the gap between the Koreans’ extreme sensitivity to safety issues and its poor record.

But a safer society, which we all want, is not such a difficult goal.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Park Tae-wook
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