Hardly learning lessons from tragedy

As the nation comes to terms with the sinking of the Sewol ferry, hope is turning to anger, frustration and despair.

The nation’s biggest maritime disaster in decades is a rude, costly wake-up call for the people that illustrates how Korea’s pursuit of getting things done can lead to critical tasks being neglected or ignored.

“Accidents like this make young people feel very nervous and unsafe. We should look after ourselves in an accident because the instructions from above can’t be trusted,” said Julie Kim, 21, a student at Seojeong University.

Kim said she is enraged over the reports of an announcement onboard the Sewol which ordered the students to stay inside the sinking vessel. “In the end the good students became the victims.”

Kim got onboard a similar ferry destined for Jeju Island several years ago. She said she can still picture the interior vividly and the onboard activities. When the accident occurred people would have been relaxed after eating breakfast, she said.

“How could they worry about money when people’s lives are at stake?” Kim expressed disappointment at the news coverage of insurance costs. She added, “The culprits always have excuses. People at the top should know the truth so should share it with the citizens.”

“It’s inconceivable that an accident of this scale happened in Korea. We thought it happens only in underdeveloped countries,” said Jimmy Jung, 39, a software engineer at Samsung.

“People are insensitive about the implications of the accident. In doing things ‘ppali, ppali (quickly-quickly),’ we skip over the trivial yet basic things every day. They pile up to result in a big disaster,” Jung said.

“When parents live longer than their children, it’s the saddest thing in the world,” said Stephen Redeker, 37, an English teacher from New Jersey.

As Korea is regarded as a safe country, people panic when a disaster strikes, he said. People on the ferry blindly followed the order without second-guessing for a moment.

“Koreans have so many meetings at both work and play. They should use some of that time on emergency drills,” he said.

After teaching in Korea for a number of years, Redeker said he is amazed at how many students cannot swim. In America, learning to swim is “part of growing up” like riding a bicycle. He thinks the people onboard would have drowned even if they had jumped into the sea.

For Rika Teraoka, 29, an employee at Totoro House, a Korean-Japanese language school, the shipwreck brought back negative memories of life in Korea.

“Living in Korea is scary compared to Japan. We are afraid of reckless drivers who have no concern for the pedestrians. My friend was hit by a taxi and seriously injured.”

To her horror, many drivers obey the traffic signals only in front of a speed camera. This may explain the high rate of traffic deaths in Korea twice that of Japan, she said.

She added that earthquake emergency drills are practiced regularly in Japan. People follow a manual with specific guidelines for emergencies.

While Japan may be a “manual society,” Korea is a “risk society,” Prof. Cho Myung-rae of Dankook University said. “Korea has a long way to go in the direction of Japan in terms of prevention and management of disasters.”

From the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge in 1994 to the ship Sewol in 2014, Korea has never learned from its fatal mistakes, he said.

“The roles, rules, regulations and responsibilities are either overlooked or carried out mechanically without people using their common sense.”

Cho said Korea has highly lax safety standards compared to other countries of similar GDP level. In a low growth era, the management of existing regulations is more important than creating new ones, he added.

“We cannot try to solve everything by law. It’s not that there aren’t enough rules and regulations. It’s the lack of compliance,” said Park Young-ho, a senior researcher at Korea Institute for National Unification.

Park said the problem is not limited to one particular area, but it is prevalent all over the country and society. “People’s mindset and behavior must be radically changed.” By Joel Lee The korea times

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