Regaining trustThe sinking of the Sewol scandalously exposed the flaws in Korea’s rigidly top-down elitist bureaucracy. In the face of coping with a major disaster, the public organizations showed themselves to be utterly incompetent, unresponsive and primitive. In order to upgrade the overall national system, it is imperative to overhaul the mind-sets and the ways of the bureaucrats.
From Sewol’s passenger list to the efforts to save more than 300 passengers, everyone in the government stumbled until they received orders from the president. The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters rarely got the numbers of the survivors or the missing right and never had the proper information on the progress of rescue operations. Each government agency set up their own emergency center, leading to mix-ups and confusion in the rescue work. When the emergency headquarters was finally unified, it couldn’t decide on the person to lead it. First it was the prime minister, then it was the minister of oceans and fisheries. The way the civil service tended to the families of the victims was equally dismal. Families demanded a TV screen to monitor the scene of the rescue. The TV screen was installed only after President Park Geun-hye heard the demand directly from the families. When most of their demands went ignored, families attempted to march to the presidential office in Seoul. If that doesn’t prove desperation, what would? A senior government official was sacked after he suggested having a group picture taken in front of the list of the dead in the situation room. Talk about empathy! One senior official from the Coast Guard infuriated the families with the self-congratulatory comment that his agency helped to save 80 passengers - out of a total of 476. Officials dispatched from the Ministry of Education were seen watching animated films on their smartphones. None of these insensitive acts could have been possible if anyone in the government sincerely sympathized with the agony of the families. The bureaucrats have no regard for the people. What they care for are their prospects for promotion and post-retirement jobs. The government is of the bureaucrat, by the bureaucrat and for the bureaucrat - instead of the people. And we thought we live in a civilized, democratic nation. The bureaucracy lives in the authoritarian past, but the rest of us live in today’s information-oriented world. The biggest fallout from the calamity is not only the loss of hundreds of lives but also a loss of confidence in our society. The students died because they obeyed the orders of authority. The authority will never be trusted so reflexively again. It must do its utmost to regain the public’s trust.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 25, Page 30