Making a difference this time

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Making a difference this time


Kim Jin-kook

The gleam of the sun on a fine May day is so bright that I can’t keep my eyes open. Its brilliant rays pierce through crystal-clear blue skies.

Tears well from its radiance. I blink several times and wipe them away.

How they must have missed the sight and warmth of such splendor sun in that icy and dark world under sea! My feet automatically take me to Seoul City Hall Plaza during my lunchtime walks. The lines that once stretched with citizens waiting to pay respects to the victims of the sunken Sewol ferry at a ritual altar there have thinned over the last few days. A month has passed since the disaster.

The yellow ribbons tied around the stand, a symbol of hope and loss, danced dazzlingly in the early summer breeze. The writing on them whispered through the wind: “May God and peace bless you.”

“I hope you are warm and safe there.” “I’m so sorry that we failed you.”

“We believed you would come back.” “Never forgive.” “We will never forget.”

Will the silent whispers and cries be enough to make a difference this time? Or will they gradually die down and evaporate from our memories just as the thinning crowds of mourners?

The government promised to rebuild this country. It is a pitiful deja vu -a repeat of major disasters, losses, self-reproach, apology and countermeasures. What has been different?

On April 9, 1953, the Changkyung boat sank while cruising from Yeosu to the southern port city of Busan. An overload of cargo caused the accident.

No life jackets or lifeboats were found on the ship. They were left behind amid a pile of dust at the company warehouse. Of the 236 passengers, only seven survived, including the captain and three other crew members.

The accident took place while the country was still at war with North Korea. More than a half century has passed. The nation is no longer a war-ridden, poor place. It is a modern democracy and an industrial powerhouse.

A passenger ferry within help’s reach by land and sky sank helplessly under water with more than 300 people on board for the very same reasons - overcapacity, lack of or useless rescue supplies and a selfish captain and crew who abandoned their ship.

In April 1963, the overloaded cruise boat Yeonho sank in waters off Mokpo. Of 140 passengers, just one survived. Most of the bodies were never recovered.

In December 1970, the Namyoung, which had been carrying freight and passengers four times beyond its capacity during its trip from Busan capsized with 338 on board. Of them, 326 died.

The sinking of the Seohae ferry with 362 on board in October 1993 killed 292. The cause was the same. Damages, lawsuits and punishment ensued.

So who would believe this time would be any different? Some Korean-Americans condemned the Korean government for the April 16 maritime calamity, which left more than 300 dead and missing.

The difference this time was the loss of so many young people. Some teachers are demanding President Park Geun-hye step down to take responsibility. The scale of the disaster - the worst in history - has been great and painful. It would be a comfort if they could somehow be compensated by the president’s resignation.

Park, of course, does not bear total responsibility for the crisis. An accident had long been looming, the result of irregularities mounting up from past administrations. But the president and her government cannot be excused for their dismal handling of the aftermath. They have lost the faith of an entire nation.

They must sincerely apologize for completely shattering public confidence in our system and government. The president cannot escape accountability by dismissing the prime minister and a few other ministers. She must ask herself why she could not have touched the hearts of the families and relieved their pain with more sincerity and candor. Why she chose to remain aloof and calm in her usual stoical way throughout the incident remains a mystery.

But what good would it do to change presidents at this stage? Rage and revenge do not guarantee that the future will be different. We will never wipe away this bitter feeling of shame and guilt by finding a few more scapegoats.

In 2003, a fire in a Daegu subway train, the result of arson, killed 343 people. More died from a train that was entering the station from the opposite direction as the fire spread from the first train. The subway driver abandoned the train using a master key without alerting the passengers in the rear cars, an action that left the doors shut and killed passengers, most of whom died from smoke inhalation.

Kim Dae-jung, the president at the time, was condemned, but nothing he could have done would have made any difference. Strengthening the monitoring of people with depression, as well as the safety and ethical training of transportation employees, should have been addressed. But these concerns were drowned out during the ensuing political blame game.

In March 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York killed 146 garment workers - mostly teenagers and young female immigrants. They died because the factory managers, who usually kept the doors and windows locked to prevent the workers from leaving, fled without opening them. The U.S. Congress drew up 64 laws over the following two years to protect workers and prevent industrial accidents. The accident inspired films, novels and even music. A memorial service is still held every year.

We, too, must never forget. We must leave the disaster scene in its shameful state. As Americans did with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, we must return to the scene and the incident. We, too, have our safety manuals. But we have long been used to ignoring them. We lack community spirit, responsibility, commitment and professionalism. Anyone who neglects duties and regulations must be punished. We must not let the lessons from the disaster be wasted by political wrangling. The legislature must draw up a full report on the case so that the people of this country uphold it as a constitution of sorts on safety regulations.

Students on the Sewol ferry thought of their peers and teachers before themselves and obeyed the rules. The adults betrayed them, so they must atone by acting, and making a difference this time.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 16, Page 31

*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

BY Kim Jin-kook

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