Lessons not learnedSix months have passed since the tragic Sewol sinking on April 16, which killed more than 300 passengers, most of them high school juniors traveling from Incheon to Jeju Island. Ten passengers are still missing despite the government’s efforts to find their bodies in the turbulent waters off the nation’s southwest coast. What really makes us frustrated is not the Coast Guard’s lethargic response to the unprecedented maritime disaster, but the sad reality of our society, which is still bent on fueling conflicts rather than sharing the pain of the relatives and drawing up ways to make a safer nation.
In the run-up to the man-made calamity, a profit-thirsty shipping company had renovated the worn-out ferry to carry cargo and passengers beyond its capacity and hired unqualified crew to navigate the rough waters off Jindo County, South Jeolla, without any concern for its passengers’ safety. That’s not all. The authorities’ contingency manuals were so topsy-turvy that the Jindo Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) nonchalantly neglected their duty and later presented to the prosecution a falsified record of their reactions before and after the ship capsized. The Coast Guard’s performance couldn’t have been more abysmal. The captain of the rescue boat that first arrived on the scene shied away from his obligations. He didn’t order passengers to abandon the ship or actively rescue them.
Behind the massive disaster was rampant corruption in officialdom and dirty connections between government officials and the industry they monitor, not to mention a critical lack of obligatory safety checks. The whopping number of suspects charged for involvement in the disaster - 399 from Chonghaejin Marine Company, the operator of the Sewol ferry, and the Coast Guard - and the number of those undergoing trial - 154 - testifies to the widespread insensitivity to public safety.
More terrible is the way our society has been reacting to the crisis. Political circles took the disaster as an opportunity to ply their partisan maneuvers, while citizens were deeply split over how to deal with the repercussions. The government’s promise to reinforce our culture of safety has not been kept, as seen in show-off policies. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport confined its tougher safety standards to 116 coastal liners - letting off the hook more than 1,900 cruisers and ferries.
According to findings of the National Assembly’s regular audit of government activities, accidents at sea rose to 341 from April 17 to August 31 - a 29 percent surge from the same period a year earlier. The government’s vow to beef up our maritime safety has ended up nowhere. Even after confirming that the initial report of the disaster by the South Jeolla Coast Guard did not follow the official command channel, the administration stopped short of conducting additional probes into the mystery, and it levied light punishments on officials whom the Board of Audit and Inspection strongly recommended to be censured. This is our sad self-portrait six months after the disaster. If we spend another six months like this, we have no future. It is time for our society to put an end to the exhausting political fights and establish genuine public safety systems that protect real people.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 16, Page 38