A few weeks ago, I was walking through my small town in North Jeolla Province when I saw a building under construction. Two floors up, a sign proclaimed, “There is no exception to safety, no premonition of accidents.” Five stories above that, directly in line with the sign, a worker walked around freely on the scaffolding with a hard hat but no harness. There was nothing in place to stop his body from slipping and falling from his precarious perch.
I couldn’t help but think, is that what safety looks like?
Three years ago, on Apr. 16, 2014, the Sewol ferry sank off the southwest coast, killing 304 people, most of them students. The disaster laid bare the South Korean government’s and the coastguard’s ineptitude, all in real time before the eyes of a transfixed nation.
National grief soon turned into outrage. The ship’s operator had sent an overloaded ship out under poor visibility to sail through notoriously dangerous waters, and poor government oversight had allowed this to happen. The coastguard was woefully unequipped to deal with a nautical disaster of this scale, and then-president Park Geun-hye was not seen for seven hours when the public expected her to be guiding the rescue efforts.
And, perhaps most infuriatingly, the captain of the Sewol at no point issued an order to evacuate the ship despite abandoning it himself roughly 45 minutes after it began to list.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Park Geun-hye offered many public apologies about the Sewol disaster, promising drastic safety reforms. Then-prime minister Chung Hong-won declared it his mission to “remodel the country from square one” to ensure that “safety culture firmly takes root in Korean society.”
However, despite all the talk of “Safe Korea” following the Sewol ferry tragedy, it’s hard to notice any major differences. “Safety-oriented” is still far from featuring in most descriptions of the country.
The Sewol disaster showcased so many things that could go and were wrong in South Korean society: avoidable human error, lax regulations (including allowing an overweight ship to operate) and a callous disregard for human life. At so many points both before and during the disaster, stronger safety regulations — or more rigid enforcement of existing regulations — could have prevented such a tragic loss of life.
The sinking naturally prompted criticism of many existing practices in South Korean society. As many of the victims were high school students on a school trip to Jeju Island, some called for school field trips to be banned. Others raised concerns about construction standards for school buildings.
The business practice of hiring irregular workers, who have less job security and receive lower pay as well as substandard training, was also condemned. The captain of the Sewol and many of the crew were irregular workers themselves, after all.
Meanwhile, newspapers decried the trend of government regulators taking jobs in the same sectors they were responsible for overseeing. The cozy relationships between regulators and businesses came under scrutiny for allowing the Sewol to pass safety checks that it shouldn’t have.
This was just the start. As part of the accident phobia that then gripped the country, the media brought out example after example of safety problems. At the small end of the scale, this included the very high number of car accidents and pedestrian fatalities each year, and atrocious workplace safety records. Rightly so, as nearly 2,000 workers died from industrial accidents in 2013 alone.
Attention also turned toward the country’s unusually high density of nuclear power plants, potentially the source of the next potential Sewol-scale disaster.
The government did push forward plans to overhaul the emergency disaster response system, including talk of creating a dedicated mobile network that would handle all communications between government agencies responding to an emergency. It also created a new Ministry of Public Safety and Security and passed an anti-corruption law to root out graft and bribery — cited as critical causes of lax regulations. Stricter regulations were imposed on the maritime industry.
That’s where things more or less ended. A special law was passed to create a commission to examine the circumstances surrounding the sinking, but it was shut down by the government before conducting a thorough investigation.
Then-prime minister Chung Hong-won left office just seven months after making safety his mission. Park Geun-hye’s administration soon busied itself with other priorities, including a corruption scandal that brought an early end to her presidency. Public safety remains an unrealized ideal.
The rate of deaths from road accidents is third-highest in the OECD, with elderly pedestrians being at particular risk. High-profile fatalities continue to plague the construction industry and maintenance work on Seoul subway lines. Companies continue to hire temporary workers and subcontractors. Workplace accidents in the industrial sector have shown a slight decline, but the still-very-high death rate suggests that accidents are simply going unreported or being covered up. And the government continues to insist on operating nuclear reactors that are well past their intended lifespan. In the media, it’s safe to say that safety-related news coverage has returned to pre-Sewol levels, a trend mirrored in popular discourse.
Ultimately, the brouhaha over public safety was another example of what South Koreans call naembi geunseong, meaning something like “kettle temperament.” The 19th-century English writer Isabella Bird Bishop, who penned a book about Korea, spoke of the tendency as “gusts of popular feeling.”
Public outrage over poor safety records and lax standards reached fever pitch — like angry jets of steam coming out of a boiling kettle — as news media dug into the causes of the Sewol sinking. The coverage created a sense of immediacy and urgency over improving safety. Then, just like that, it all faded away.
As noted expatriate blogger Matt VanVolkenburg has said, this naembi culture characterizes the national temperament as a whole, not just the post-Sewol interest in safety. Issues come to the attention of the public and become prominent in short order, but people quickly move on to the next cause. This rapid loss of interest means issues often don’t stay in the public consciousness long enough to produce meaningful change.
The response in the country each time there is an earthquake characterizes naembi geunseong best. Following the 5.8 earthquake that hit the historic city of Gyeongju last September, there was a flurry of media reports about South Korea’s unpreparedness to handle seismic events. (The Park Geun-hye administration had reportedly cut the budget for earthquake-related preparatory measures by 95 percent during the three years leading up to the big quake.) And now? Small earthquakes continue to occur on average every other day within the country or in the surrounding seas, but without much mention in the press.
To be sure, there has been progress post-Sewol. The public’s expectations of safety and security continue to rise and the standards the government holds itself to slowly rise along with them. But the changes we have seen in the three years since the Sewol tragedy don’t compare to the scale of the changes demanded by the public in the immediate aftermath. Improvement is happening, but at a snail’s pace.
Until the next disaster.