The Sewol passenger ferry disaster is a tragic combination of incompetent politicians, corrupt bureaucrats and one immoral businessman. The political community has been blinded by power and negligent about the safety of their people. The bureaucracy has settled for their vested interests. The owner of the Sewol ferry, who evoked public criticism because of immoral and illegal activities in the past, has been engaged in immoral deeds but left unchecked. In short, the catastrophe can be attributed to the systemic and structural backwardness of Korean society.
Discussions of “national renovations” are heating up under the circumstances. “It is too regretful that such a disaster broke out yet again due to our failure to fix the deep-rooted and accumulated evils in this society,” President Park Geun-hye spoke, deploring the situation.
However, this is not the first time such a controversy was aroused. In fact, it has been repeated after every single national disaster such as the sinking of the Seohae Ferry, collapse of the Sungsu Grand Bridge, and the fire in the Daegu Subway. The government has announced each time that it would replace Ministers, shore up its supervisory functions, and eradicate the collusion between public servants and the business world. But none of these hollow, rough-and-ready reform measures have been successful, and the same mistakes are repeated with the source of the malaise intact.
These social ills are ascribed to an ignorance of safety widespread across society, and strong links between businesses and bureaucracy. Collusion and its negative repercussions, though having come to the surface in the form of the Sewol disaster at this time, are nothing new at all. Eight out of the 11 current and former chairpersons of Korean Register of Shipping, which is in charge of marine vessel safety inspections, are former officials of the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. Ten out of the 12 directors of the Korea Shipping Association, which is responsible for the loading of cargo and ship inspections, are former government officials, too. Such connection-based appointments have resulted in the privatization of public administration.
President Park declared that she would reform the bureaucracy in order to prevent further catastrophes, which should be a starting point for the renovation of national systems. Both direct and indirect causes of the accident, inappropriate actions during the course of the salvage, social wrongdoings, and the state of collusion will have to be rooted out no matter how much time it takes. If necessary, an organ in direct control by the President has to be set up, covering not only the government and the National Assembly but also private-sector experts, the police and the prosecution, academia and even the bereaved families. Reform led by bureaucrats themselves is never sufficient, as evidenced by history.
The souls of the victims can be consoled only when Korean society is saved from this swamp of backwardness, moral hazard, and corruption. The 304 victims cannot die a useless death by any means.
by Park Jung-hwan, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief