On April 16 the South Korean ferry the Sewol sank with 476 people aboard.
The captain was among the first to be rescued. The passengers, more than 300 of them students on a school field trip, were told to stay in their places, below deck, for more than 30 minutes as the ferry sank. There were delays in the rescue effort due to lack of coordination and incompetence. One of the students on board was the first to report the ferry’s emergency situation, a boy whose body would later be recovered along with the cell phone from which he made the call. The ship was unsafe; refurbished with extra cabins and loaded with more than triple the recommended maximum weight of cargo. To date 174 people survive, more than 200 bodies have been recovered, with the rest missing amid efforts of exhausted divers to exhume more dead from the sunken ship, as the nation despairs.
Not only in Ansan, the home of many of the student passengers, but now across the country, mourning sites have been established to allow the nation to grieve. The mourning altar at Seoul Square has received more than 100,000 visitors since being set up April 27. People pay condolences, sharing their prayers with the lost in messages they write on yellow ribbons tied in display.
The story of the accident has played out over time, encompassing issues of governance, corruption, and public safety, as more and more people aside from the captain are found to be responsible for so much loss of life.
After laying the blame on the captain, Park Geun-hye ordered ministries to swing into action, devising safety measures and budgets to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The move backfired, as she now sees her approval ratings slide with increasing backlash over her own handling of the crisis, particularly after she met with a grieving person, later discovered not to be a family member, but someone hand picked by the Blue House for a photo opportunity.
While South Korea’s IT sector may be first world, the nation’s safety record has been characterized as third world. The New York Times’ Choe Sang-hun points out that more than 31,000 people, including 3,000 students, die every year in accidents, nearly 13 percent of the total and the highest rate among major developed nations.
A recent Hankyoreh report shows that in South Korea death by accident makes up 36 percent of all deaths, with only Mexico and Russia having higher accidental death rates. Responding to the report, “Blessing” commented with a call for a revision to the country’s safety system, saying, “the country needs to change its attitude about safety.”
The Sewol captain, Lee Jun-Seok, receives 2.7 million won per month in pay: two-thirds the average in South Korea, for his rank. The crew are similarly underpaid and contracted yearly – thereby avoiding retirement benefits, reports SisaIN. In comparison, a ship captain of BC Ferries in Canada receives about the equivalent of 8 million won per month.
South Korea’s ferries and their crews are also aging, with 60 percent of 1,000 ton passenger ships more than 15 years old and 76 percent of their crews over 50 years old, reports SisaIN.
The regulator in charge of South Korea’s maritime safety is a private organization tied to the companies they are charged to police. An annual safety inspection by the Coast Guard and Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries of the 6,825 ton ship the Sewol and 11 other West Sea ferries last July took a total of 2 hours and 40 minutes – for all 12 ferries.
South Korea has the second lowest tax rate at about 26 percent, among the OECD, above only Mexico. Sweden’s tax rate is over 50 percent. Its Maritime Safety Administration is a government enterprise.
Canada’s tax rate is 32 percent. Its maritime transportation is regulated by Transport Canada under the Ministry of Transportation. BC Ferries is an independent former crown corporation now majority-owned by the British Columbia provincial government.
During her campaign, Park Geun-hye had promised to make South Korea safe.
Recently the probe into the accident is centered on the financial irregularities of the shipping company and its owners, who are under investigation for embezzlement, bribery and tax evasion.
It was only a few months ago that a Finance Ministry official commented that “for a quicker and more solid economic recovery, it is necessary for policymakers to ease overly strict probes or slash the number of on-the-spot tax investigations.”