[Editorial] The Korean disaster response sank along with the Sewol

Posted on : 2014-04-21 12:17 KST Modified on : 2014-04-21 12:17 KST
 Apr. 20. (by Lee Jeong-yong
Apr. 20. (by Lee Jeong-yong

Sunday marked the sixth day since the Sewol, the country’s largest passenger ferry going between Incheon and Jeju Island, went down in the waters off Jindo Island. Each day adds more names to the death toll, and reduces the number of missing people left to rescue. Each night of sleep only peels away whatever strands of hope remain. Yet this whole episode has also revealed a comprehensive failure of the government’s national crisis management capabilities, with tallies of the extent of the tragedy and announcements about rescue and search activities varying seemingly from one moment to the next. The families of the victims in this tragedy have been saddened and infuriated to witness the national disaster response system’s failure. The people of South Korea are deeply mortified, and seemingly on the brink of an episode of collective depression.

The sinking of the Sewol is a major national tragedy. The role of the government’s agencies and the different institutions is to make a swift appraisal of the damages and to respond with organic cooperation, allowing equipment and personnel to be sent where they‘re needed to save lives. The Park Geun-hye administration named national safety as one of its top priorities when it took office; it even amended the relevant laws in February to improve the disaster response system. The new law stated that in the event of a national disaster, the Ministry of Security and Public Administration was to immediately set up a Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters (CDSCH) to serve as a pan-governmental control tower. The administration stressed that it was taking functions that were spread across multiple agencies and integrating them into one unified disaster management system.

But that control tower function was entirely missing from the government’s response after the sinking. The CDSCH was reduced to compiling the numbers reported to it by other agencies - and even then the totals were frequently inaccurate, feeding into the growing popular mistrust and anger. For the first four days after the accident, the government’s announcement of the numbers of passengers and rescued went back and forth. The passenger numbers have been revised five times, the number of rescues no fewer than eight; even now, the totals are still reportedly inaccurate. In one particularly shocking case, the lists of missing passengers and rescued ones were flipped.

The same sort of clumsiness could be seen in the government’s response at the scene of the accident. The confusion about who was in charge on the ground was the main reason why rescuers squandered the “golden hour,” the initial period after a ship sinks in which the fate of passengers is decided. Briefings on the situation were needlessly separated between the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and the Coast Guard, and the two organizations’ squabble over command kept them from making a decisive response.

Foreign media are providing detailed coverage of an uninterrupted ferry sinking, the kind of thing that happens in third-world countries. This coverage is showing the whole world just how backward South Korea’s disaster response system and crisis management capacity are.

Victims’ family members are directing their grievances at the Blue House. They are enraged at the government’s unreliable announcements and its dilatory search and rescue efforts. In response, the government has allegedly been sending plainclothes detectives to keep an eye on the families’ behavior and to even collect evidence against them. This suggests that the government views the bereaved families as potential criminals and is gathering evidence for a criminal investigation. It is dreadful to think that the government’s crisis response is focusing on activities such as these.

The Sewol’s captain was the first to flee the ship when it sank, while the passengers, who had been instructed to stay in place, were still waiting to be rescued when the ship slipped beneath the cold waves. Up to this point, the tragedy only concerns the sinking of the Sewol ferry. It is in what came next - the efforts to rescue the passengers and respond to the sinking - that another tragedy comes into view: the utter inadequacy of South Korea’s disaster response system. After the Sewol went down, the hearts of the people on board the South Korean ship of state have been just as depressed and grief-stricken as the families of those lost in the accident.

Whether caused by nature or by human error, national crises can occur at any time. The crucial thing is the state’s ability to protect its citizens in times of crisis. But the government’s disaster response and crisis management systems revealed in the Sewol tragedy have been such a complete mess that it is embarrassing to even call it a government. So we need to ask once more: what kind of country is this?


Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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