Bad policy caused the ferry disaster, not bad culture
Moments of great tragedy often elicit national soul-searching. So it is with last week’s South Korean ferry disaster, which has triggered an outpouring of not only grief and anger, but also of something close to self-loathing. “This was a stereotypical man-made disaster resulting from Korean society’s indifference to safety,” thundered one editorial, which went on to ask contemptuously: “What kind of country is this?” Another opined: “Unless we change South Korean society, there’s no way of knowing what other kind of tragedy will come our way.”
In their efforts to understand what caused an accident that may end up claiming more than 300 lives – many of them teenage students – Koreans have cast their net wide. Those who have come under most scrutiny include the ferry’s captain, who allegedly abandoned ship, and the government which, like its Malaysian counterpart after last month’s aircraft disappearance, was slow to respond and sent out conflicting messages about the rescue operation.
Yet beyond the immediate culprits, Koreans have delved deeper to ask questions about their own society. From the outside, South Korea looks incredibly successful as it closes in on western living standards. But from the perspective of many of its people, their society can seem severely flawed – unequal, caught up in an educational rat race and with a high tendency to suicide. Among the ultimate causes of the ferry disaster, some have identified an economic model that prizes growth, profits and the prestige of Korea Inc above the welfare of its citizens. Others, in a narrative seized on by many foreign commentators, have even blamed Korean culture itself, particularly the adherence to hierarchy that allegedly caused students to obey fatal instructions to stay below decks.
South Korea’s safety record is indeed woeful. Among advanced nations, it comes below only Turkey in the number of fatal industrial accidents. In 1995 a department store in Seoul, built on the cheap, collapsed, killing 500 people and injuring almost 1,000 more. Korea’s nuclear industry has also compromised safety. Last year it was found using fake parts. Three nuclear power stations were shut down for using cables with phoney safety certificates. The lack of safety culture extends to Korea’s roads, where drink-driving is common and seatbelt-wearing less so. The country’s driving test is so easy that Chinese are flocking to Seoul to get a licence.
In the case of the capsized Sewol, safety protocols appear to have been hopelessly inadequate. The crew followed no discernible evacuation procedure. The ferry’s public address system was not working properly and instructions given to passengers appear to have been misleading at best and deadly at worst. In a reflection of the greater casualisation of Korea’s workforce – sharply divided between those with well-paid, full-time jobs and the rest – many crew members were irregular workers. The ferry was only running thanks to a change of law extending the life of ships from 20 to 30 years. There is speculation that the ship, twice refurbished to add new capacity, was unstable. If that is true, it suggests a negligent inspection regime.
The whole saga, as many Koreans have concluded, points to a society where, in the words of Daniel Tudor, author of Korea: The Impossible Country, “growth is everything and quality of life can be sacrificed”. Shim Jae-hoon, a political commentator, speaks of his nation’s balli-balli, or quick-quick, culture.
Many Koreans, particularly those on the left, bemoan the weak social safety net and the intensely competitive nature of the society. It is an echo of what the Japanese once called the “empty affluence” of their hell-for-leather lunge for growth in the go-go 1960s and 1970s.
What about the cultural question? Mr Shim talks about a Confucian deference to hierarchy, which he postulates may have slowed the rescue effort and curbed life-saving initiative. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell offers a probably far-fetched thesis that a 1997 Korean Air crash occurred because the first officer and engineer felt unable to warn the captain of impending disaster. Cultural explanations of this sort are usually too glib and almost always unhelpful. A report into Japan’s 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster blamed “the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture”, an explanation that let individuals off the hook and underestimated the usefulness of clear safety procedures.
Mr Tudor rejects sweeping cultural judgments, arguing that they lead to self-hatred and inertia. If something is “cultural”, the next step is to regard it as unchangeable. He is right. Koreans should drop the existential wailing and concentrate instead on what can be practically achieved. That may indeed involve a recalibration of postwar values that have too often prioritised growth over human welfare. But there may be simpler things that can be done too. Proper safety drills and adequate safety regulations, strictly enforced, would be a good place to start.