More preventive measures needed

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More preventive measures needed


Lim Seung-bin

The tragedy of the Sewol ferry brought to light the fact that the difference between developed nations and the third world is not in the system but in its execution.

In the past, we were preoccupied with public policies for a successful administration, and we neglected to input procedures that valued safety.

To prevent a recurrence of another tragic and shameful disaster, the government organization must be revamped in order to deliver effective command, decision-making and responsiveness in the face of emergencies.

Quick action is imperative in any dangerous situation. To mitigate loss and damage, operational response in the period immediately after the accident, or in the first 30 minutes to an hour following, is crucial. But that is difficult under our current emergency management system because conflict of interest and clashes in jurisdiction get in the way of cooperation and coordination among different branches.

This is why the authorities stumble and respond poorly. Laws and acts on disaster prevention and management have been drawn up as makeshift actions to ease public concern. Various legislation not only overlaps but is ambiguous and contradictory in describing accountability, authority and duties.

After the first social disaster-related law, the Civil Defense Law, was made in the 1970s, the government trotted out various safety-related legislation in the rural and fisheries, firefighting, rail, road and construction divisions in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the natural and man-made disaster categories were simplified into two separate laws. The current law on disaster and safety management was created in 2004.

This sporadic lawmaking has undermined unity in command, control and supervision in emergency management.

Under the current law, the minister of security and public administration takes command over a central headquarters when a major disaster occurs. To ensure a proactive and professional service, a government office best qualified to respond to the situation is required to run separate relief headquarters. The National Emergency Management Agency must also be equipped with an emergency rescue network to coordinate the roles of the fire, ambulance and police departments. In other words, three different control towers are activated in times of contingency.

Both heads of the central disaster control and relief action headquarters are cabinet ministers in charge of different jurisdictions, and are therefore not obliged to follow orders from one other. Cooperation and assistance, naturally, cannot arrive in a timely manner.

In order to establish an effective singular top-down command system to cope with disasters, we must be aware of two important elements. Policies are made by the central government, but 80 to 90 percent of them are executed by local governments. The central government shoulders about 30 percent of budgetary spending, but the rest comes from state reserves and local government coffers.

Creating a U.S.-style Federal Emergency Management Agency by elevating the current national emergency management agency to a higher level will be of no use because it lacks a network with local governments. FEMA covers the nation by running 10 local branches. Korea has 17 fire and emergency services headquarters, but they fall in the jurisdiction of separate local governments. Natural disaster prevention and management is also part of local governments’ administrative functions.

The optimal solution would be to transfer the natural disaster response function from the National Emergency Management Agency, as well as the command of the Coast Guard to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration. The ministry will be responsible for all disaster-related responses. What is important is strict supervision of safety regulations to prevent disasters from happening in the first place. The minister of security could be upgraded to the level of deputy prime minister for greater authority over local governments, or a vice minister on safety should be established for more responsibility in policy-making, budgeting and execution of safety regulations.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 30, Page 26

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor of public administration department at Myongji University.

BY Lim Seung-bin

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