The mourning after

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The mourning after


Kim Jong-soo

A pall has been cast over the entire country ever since the ferry Sewol went under the sea off the southwestern coast with more than 400 passengers on April 16. A man-made calamity took place as the entire population - the entire world, actually - watched helplessly. Korea entered a state of traumatic shock leading to recriminations and a sense of powerless and guilt for our inability to save any of the young lives trapped inside the sunken vessel. They died because adults told them to do the wrong thing. They died because adults on the crew abandoned them to save their own lives. They died because adults on shore failed to arrive in time to save them.

The country went into mourning, putting political schedules, entertainment events, concerts and TV shows on hold. Ordinary people canceled outdoor activities to stay at home and join in the silent grieving. The economy came to a near standstill. Companies put off new product releases. Their customers stayed at home instead of shopping or dining out.

It is natural to mourn such heavy and shocking losses and to try to share the pain and grief of the bereaved families, to offer prayers in the face of the country’s worst maritime disaster in decades. But not everything should be disrupted in the name of grief. One cannot do anything about free-willed people choosing to contain themselves in a time of mourning. But the same liberty should not be allowed of the government or companies. Even in critical times or periods of emergency, a sophisticated society should be able to function as normally.

Seeds of another disaster or crisis could be planted if the normal functions of society are neglected and the country enters into a trance-like state. Accidents aren’t caused by one-time mistakes. They build up on a series of causes after emitting signs of danger and warnings. They may be avoided for a while, but we can’t always rely on luck.

American industrial safety expert Herbert Heinrich researched accidents in workplaces, and in his 1931 book “Industrial Accident Prevention, A Scientific Prevention,” he argued that accidents share common root causes. What became known as Heinrich’s Law says that behind every accident that causes major casualties, there were 29 accidents that had minor consequences and 300 that ended in no injuries. Addressing the causes of commonplace accidents and fixing them could prevent major accidents in the future.

Most accidents are caused by human error. If the warning signs go ignored and unfixed, they often build up to a catastrophe, as seems to have been the case with the doomed Sewol.

We have learned that there were sufficient danger signs with the Sewol and lost opportunities to prevent the disaster. The Sewol’s sinking was a cumulative byproduct of repeated negligence, malfeasance, recklessness and laxity. An economic crisis builds on similar foundations. The country faced near default in 1997 after dismissing many signs of danger. The economy crumbled after a minor external shock because massive corporate debt piled up unregulated and slack foreign exchange management went unnoticed.

The government is entirely preoccupied with the Sewol accident and coming up with measures to prevent maritime disasters after heavy scolding from the president.

But disasters do not just happen at sea. There are many areas of potential crisis if left unattended. Investigating problems and fixing them as pre-emptive measures, however, is hard to prove. Preventive actions mean nothing bad happens later. If everything is peaceful, the bureaucrats won’t be able to claim responsibility. But if accidents or crises erupt, they expose all the inactions and slackness that went before, and it looks like they’re doing something after all.

We cannot wait for accidents to happen to see whether authorities are doing their jobs. Everyone in government offices should do their bits to examine areas of weaknesses and blind spots to ensure safety all across the public sector. A public official should do his duty regardless of the results and rewards. The government must proceed with its public sector reform and deregulation drive as promised. Those two areas have been signaling dangers for a while. If they are not addressed immediately, major crises could explode from these sectors. The government should not hide or stall just because the country is in a state of grief.

In an annual report on Korea released last week, the International Monetary Fund warned that if the country’s services and labor sectors are not reformed, its growth potential could slump into the 2 percent range in 10 years. If the country’s growth falls to the 2 percent level, the economy may be forever trapped in the mid-income range.

The government should pay heed to the IMF warning and do its best to reform the services sector and labor market. The Sewol accident will go into our history as one of the most shameful and tragic disasters. But we cannot let the accident rule us. A week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush declared, “Life goes on.” We must all return to our normal business with a new resolution to be more attentive and responsible.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 23, Page 28

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jong-soo

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