A tragedy worsenedDistressed families of missing passengers on the ferry yelled at President Park Geun-hye on Thursday when she made a trip to a makeshift evacuation center in Jindo, South Jeolla, on the southwest coast of Korea. “We don’t believe what the Coast Guard or the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries says. Please order civil servants to listen to what we say.”
After listening awhile, the president directed government officials on the spot to “do your best no matter what.” The anguished and angry family members waiting for news of their missing children - mostly high school students on a field trip to Jeju Island - applauded the president. Authorities appeared to react to Park’s order by setting up a big television screen at the gymnasium in Jindo in which the families have been staying since the ferry sank Wednesday morning.
Then on Friday, a piece of news arrived at the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters in Seoul. After a senior official said, “Our Coast Guard has entered the cabins of the submerged ferry,” reporters scurried to get the story out. But the official soon reversed himself. “It turns out the Coast Guard has not yet entered the cabins,” he said. As journalists’ complained loudly, he excused himself and said, “We just follow reports from officials on the scene.”
The flip-flops of the government on the number of survivors and missing passengers on the first day continued even after the president’s order. “The government headquarters has no ability to command and government agencies cannot communicate with one another,” said a frustrated reporter. “They just keep excusing themselves.”
The families released an open letter pleading, “Help our kids to survive, as there’s no one taking responsibility.” When one of our staff reporters dispatched to the site was asked what’s really going on down there, he said a number of ambulances were waiting in Paengmok Harbor with civilian volunteers handing out blankets and underwear to families. The shameful lack of a coordinated response has made an unimaginable tragedy even worse.
Three days into this national tragedy, we are again frustrated by the sad reality of still not knowing whether 236 missing students are dead or alive. That forces us to think about our pride as the seventh-largest exporter and the 13th biggest economy in the world. When it comes to dealing with national disasters, Korea has a long way to go. We want - and we deserve - a government we can trust in times of national crisis.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 19, Page 30