A safe Korea is a proactive Korea
Also last Friday, I spoke with a journalist friend who had been sent to Danwon High School to do some reporting. He told me he just wandered around the school, to get a sense of the mood there. His photographer went around taking non-close-up photographs. Others, he said, were less restrained. TV news crews were shoving cameras in the faces of crying children, for example. One reporter walked into a classroom and asked a clearly upset student for an interview. The kid screamed to be left alone. Hearing this display of emotion from outside, a scrum of other reporters leapt up and burst into the room, and surrounded the poor child. If you want an example of “being uncivilized,” then this would be a good one.
Those were local reporters. But then a normally respectable Western newspaper tweeted: “Relative of passenger on sunken South Korean ferry weeps. More photos: [link].” How grim. The hoary old “Korean culture is to blame” line was going around in the international media, too. There was a particularly silly report on CNN, in which both the presenter and on-the-ground reporter suggested that Korea’s strong penchant for obedience was somehow to blame for the children not getting off the boat sooner. I wonder if CNN would speculate whether a disaster in the United States was a result of American culture, especially while the rescue was still going on?
But in the end, nobody criticizes Korea as much as Koreans themselves. During the past week, I have heard so many people here saying this country is “third rate one,” morally bankrupt, or backward. Most disturbingly, I keep hearing the word “developed country” over and over again, and why disasters like the Sewol ferry mean Korea isn’t one.
First of all, I’d like to say very generally that this fixation with the advanced nation narrative is one of the most destructive forces in Korean society. It encourages a quick-fix, do-it-now mentality toward everything, prevents genuine social progress and positive reflection on Korea’s achievements, and aggravates the disease of comparing absolutely anything that can be measured in numbers with its equivalent in country X, Y or Z. Ironically, the advanced nation idea works to prevent Korea from actually becoming a happier, safer country. But more importantly right now, this broad-brush defeatism - alongside the ongoing barrage of insensitive media reporting - is becoming a psychological distraction from the obvious work ahead.
It is painfully clear, not just because of the events of the past week, that safety is a problem in Korea. On a smaller scale, we see evidence of this every day on the streets. Bosses pressure bus and food delivery drivers to arrive “on time” rather than safely, making them drive like maniacs. Many construction and maintenance sites are not properly cordoned off from the public.
When accidents happen, the instinct is to cover up rather than acknowledge the problem, as I know (but cannot “prove”) to be the case at one very large construction project going on right now in Seoul. And the authorities do not respond aggressively enough; those guilty of cutting corners with safety need to be punished severely, and publicly shamed - preferably following a proper inspection, rather than an accident. The general public also needs much better safety consciousness: Do you use your seat belt every time you get in a car? Why not? And how many people you know have driven drunk?
Overall, Korea needs a much tougher approach to public safety. Drills and procedures, laws, enforcement, public education and the emergency response of the authorities; all need serious improvement. Not just on boats, but in the workplace, on the streets and anywhere else that accidents can happen. In other rich countries, people often complain about excessive safety regulation. But that is better than the other extreme.
In 10 years’ time, we need to be able to look back on the ferry tragedy as a turning point, the start of a safer Korea. Under normal circumstances, the kind of overhaul required would meet inertia and push-back. But right now, it wouldn’t. This is the time to get it done. One of Korea’s greatest strengths is the ability to band together and make a change when the chips are down. Hopefully this time will be no exception. The best tribute to the victims, and the best expression of love for the people, will come from those who act positively and constructively to prevent future tragedies big and small.
*The author is the former Seoul correspondent for The Economist.
BY Daniel Tudor