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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


  1. Yes I agree with you here Steve. I live in Gunpo, not far from Danwon HS. I actually went to Danwon HS yesterday and to say it felt morbid would be an understatement. They had all the ribbons and offerings there and all, which was very fitting I must say - and also, fittingly contributing to the paralysis of the nation at this time. I feel the biggest issue is that the whole country seems to be stopping - like - everything. From concerts, to sporting events, to festivals. I feel its a bit silly for that to happen. Then again, after 7 years here, its of no surprise. When somebody is not doing something for them, they whinge and whinge lots. When you suggest they go and fix it, they scoff at the idea. Maybe this incident will make them realise that life goes on and they will see the light and adapt accordingly.

  2. Great article.
    I'd comment but retribution is a bitch. LOL
    It's also why nothing will probably ever change.

  3. As much as I sympathize with the general idea of your post, the stronger I must disagree with your conclusion. You are talking a bout the Sewol ferry and focus on the safety issue around it. Finally you illustrate your point, that a general lack of safety-consciousness in Korean society can be seen bu how likely a bicyclist wears a helmet. My objections: I don't think that safety is a primary cause of the disaster. It is a secondary, because the lack of safety was created by deregulation, lack of enforcement of the regulation, corruption and nepotism. Basically just the usual corporate greed and irresponsibility you find everywhere, but unhindered because no (governmental-, controlling-) body had stopped it. The second part, where you try to make a connection from safety awareness to bike helmets is where you are completely wrong. Yes, safety awareness is low in Korea [1]. Illustrating it with a bicycle helmet though, that's another thing. Why? Let's take a step back for a moment. I've seen many cultural contexts and I have witnessed many changes and perceptions of rights and wrongs. For instance, I remember very well when mobile phones where a new thing and people started using them in the car. There was nobody who was upset not concerned about it. Then legislation changed and banned it. Suddenly it was outrageous and irresponsible, and pedestrians would yell at car drivers who where calling and driving. What I want to point out is that law changes perceptions and morals do change quickly in society. Another example: In the US the car industry successfully outlawed to cross a road, inventing the offense "jaywalking". It is a quite stunning story [2]. Similar things are happening with the bicycle helmet. In Germany, it is the car lobby that is promoting to introduce a law to make helmets mandatory for bicyclists, while study after study show that they are doing more harm then good for a whole society [3]. It's good to wear a helmet, if that makes you happy, but the little syrofoam won't help you when a truck drives over your head. Car drivers actually have a higher risk in head injuries then bicyclists, and if you do have a major accident with the bicycle it is mostly the spine that's hurt. Mayor health risks in developed nations are obesity and heart failures due to physical inactivity. In countries which did introduce bike helmet laws, bicycling declined about 20%, resulting in more expenses to the health system and a higher death risk for the aforementioned reasons.
    When you promote helmets as an indicator for safety, you are wrong. Actually a study shows that riding a bicycle with a helmet is statistically less safe than without a helmet. Because the bicycle rider has a higher perception of safety the riding will be less safe. The car drivers also will give you less space.
    When you link safety=helmets in your article you are doing the car industry a favor, because this is how they would like to see the public perception. The car lobby, doesn't want to see the cars as the cause of the problem, but shift the blame for the accidents to the "irresponsible" bicycle rider. Just as they did when they lobbied for outlawing to cross a street. This (german) newspaper says: "If you are wearing a helmet, you have surrendered to the cars" [4].


    1. Max, thanks for your response. You have spent most of your article refuting my post by pointing out the bike helmets are not safe. That debate has been going on for decades, with research on both sides available to dispute the other. Obviously when you and your family members go biking, you choose not to wear helmets. Sad to hear that but I respect your right. I will stand strongly on my point that safety is a low priority here in Korea and that it was a key factor in the Sewol disaster. No, it is not safety's disregard alone, but a mix of other factors which created a "perfect storm," a storm which will be replicated again and again, until safety is taken more seriously here in Korea.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.


    4. Max, you might want to give this article a read. Other journalists are apparently also reporting on links of the tragedy to Korea's safety (or lack thereof) culture:

  4. The problems seems to be that Koreans are uneducated about safety. For example Westerners have been trained to wear a helmet while riding a bike, and we know that babys in car seats are safer in the back seat. If I tell my Korean friends/relatives that something is dangerous then they usually say they didn't know.

  5. Another relevant and interesting article on this topic, "Speaking Truth to Society."

  6. Yet another article linking Korea's safety culture with the Sewol tragedy:

  7. It is a great legacy of Dictator's Park, former president assinated by his man.
    His daughter inherited abundant deceptions fron her father.
    Dictator Park was a Japanese and communist.
    His name is Dakaki Masao in Japanese.