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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Korea's Safety Paralysis

These days the Sewol Ferry disaster is the talk of the country. The tragedy has squeezed every ounce of spirit out of Korea's conscience. As of this post, the bodies of dozens of young students still float in the cold, murky waters off Korea's southwest coast. What will the fallout of this deeply troubling saga be?

The ferry Sewol during headier times

Writers, analysts, citizens, parents and families who have lost children, and casual observers are all casting blame for the ship's sinking on an April morning as it was making its way from Inchon to Jeju Island. Some blame the captain and the crew for telling the passengers to stay in their seats while valuable time was lost. The crew, it seems, lost no time exiting the ship and saving their own lives. Many blame the president and governmental leaders for their questionable handling of the rescue. The prime minister has resigned and leaders of various maritime agencies have been prevented from leaving the country. Still others blame the ferry company owners for recklessly altering the ship, overloading cargo, and failing to even minimally train employees.

Far and wide from the site of this disaster, makeshift memorials dot the landscape of this grieving country. In a park here in Daegu, yellow ribbons hung along a line in the sun. Teenage girls, the same age as the victims of the Sewol, wrote messages expressing their sorrow. For now, sadness fills every nook and cranny of this country.

Students, about the same age as the students aboard the Sewol, place yellow ribbons
at a memorial
A student writes a message in memory of the lives lost

A Korean friend shared her perspective on the disaster. "Korea may lead the world in technology and manufacturing," she said, "but in terms of safety, we still behave like a developing country." Moments earlier, as I was about to cross a major thoroughfare to meet her, I watched half a dozen cars run the red light as pedestrians stood nearby.  It is common, in fact routine, to see Korean drivers run red lights here. Stop signs? Many are hidden from view, obstructed by poles, trees, and overgrown shrubbery. Otherwise, they are totally ignored.

Our campus is dotted with red stop signs located at various crossings and intersections. Over a period of 2-years, I have never seen a single Korean driver stop at any of these signs--not once. It is not surprising then, that Korea's per driver fatality rate is twice as high as that of the U.S.  Koreans seem to think that stopping at a stop sign is optional, more of a guideline than a law.

Disregard for safety,  it appears, was a key contributor behind the Sewol disaster. The ship had been dangerously overloaded nearly every time it left port since the inception of its service in Korea. Maritime and government officials at all levels seem to have either colluded with fleet owners, or overlooked freight safety regulations.

Many Koreans are expressing dismay and embarrassment about the state of safety in their country. Others wonder if their cultural tendency to rush from one thing to another, a dynamic known as "ppali ppali," is causing them to cut corners and to put people at risk.

Are Koreans moving too fast to "think safety?"

As I ponder this situation, an iconic bumper sticker comes to mind, "Think globally, act locally." Koreans have ridden the wave of success generated by their global icons such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai, KIA and even Korean K-Pop. Yet when it comes to safety, safety close to home, most turn away.  As I was about to leave the park in Daegu, on that bright and sunny day, I watched hundreds of people, mostly young children, having fun biking in designated riding areas. Everyone was enjoying themselves. Only one child was wearing a safety helmet. Safety in Korea, it appears, is someone else's problem.

Safety, in Korea, is someone else's problem