June 03, 2014

My Take on What Korea Needs to Do in the Aftermath of the Sewol Ferry Disaster

Is It Cultural?

There is little point in dwelling on the enormous tragedy and sadness of the Sewol's sinking other than to remember those lost. What happened there that day, or who is primarily or secondarily to blame, is not the point of this article. The point is, simply, what does Korea do now? How does it stop these things happening again?

That said, it's well documented that the captain and crew of the Sewol told passengers to stay in their cabins. The same thing happened on the recent subway train incident.

A witness said many passengers ignored an onboard announcement telling them to stay inside and forced the doors open, escaping on to the tracks.

Many are saying this is a cultural difference, one of obedience. It is a cultural difference, just not that one. The simple reason for both of these errors ('everyone stay put!') is that no one in charge knew what to do, because they'd never practiced it. Safety drills of any kind are simply not carried out here, anywhere, anytime. As many have said, it's cultural, and this is true, it's cultural alright, but not that 'culture of obedience' that everyone is citing, but the cultural disregard, nay, an almost flamboyant 'look at us, we don't need to' disregard of safety protocols that many Koreans simply do not think apply to them.

In Korea, the older you are the more respect you get, and the older you are, the less you have to abide by the rules, it seems. Old people walk to the front of queues, disregard traffic laws, even common sense ones like crossing the road, push onto the train while you're trying to get off, and so on. They too often have a general disregard for safety rules. It's a strangely Eastern thing. 'I'm old, therefore I don't need to look when crossing the road, you should be looking out for me'. I 'kind of' see the sense in it, but it also sets an example for the next generation. Younger people can't wait to be old enough to be rebels! In many ways it's the exact opposite of the West. Korea's elders are often setting, in terms of safety anyway, a very bad example.

Safety Drills

I've worked in Korean public schools for over five years, and not once has there been a fire drill. I've heard the school fire alarm go off once or twice, and have peeked out of my classroom to find that life is carrying on as normal. This, bizarrely, is also true of the air-raid style alarms that they run now and then, as a military drill, all across Korea. No one cares; people just carry on shopping and pushing their strollers around as if nothing is happening. Until the country starts to shed off its macho posturing, for that's what it is, of 'safety issues are for stiffs and bores and therefore don't apply to us', these incidents will continue to happen.

This flaunting of safety issues is summed up perfectly in the Chison-Ilbo - a Korean national newspaper:

Korea has to swallow its pride, and take action, and the action it needs to take is safety drills, and of course other safety checks, enforced by incorruptible regulators. To enable this, it needs a wholesale attitude shift that takes safety practice seriously. And it needs to do that now. I cannot understand why not a single principal, or vice principal, at any school I've worked at including the current one, has not instigated a fire drill. Do they not care about the safety of their children? Of course they do. But they are too proud to change, too proud because changing would admit that they've been doing it wrong all along. 'I can't take action that may save the lives of hundreds of children, because it might cause me some embarrassment.' Oh, it's cultural alright.

Another issue within Korean culture is hierarchy. For example, vice principals most often run the day-to-day business of the school, and the principal is more of a figurehead, or a kind of president, who deals with governments, ministries, education authorities and so on. However, the VP could never instigate such a policy change as having a fire drill without consulting the principal as this 'going behind his back' would cause great offence. Embarrassment and ease-of-offence are not simple traits to run together. I appreciate cultures have different forms of politeness and therefore offence, but surely children's safety comes first? You'd think so, but I'm still waiting for any school in my district to instigate a fire drill, because to change would be to admit imperfection. To change would be, somehow, somewhere, going behind a superior's back. On top of that, to instigate fire drills would at once be 'stiff and boring'. And so we reach a stalemate. A heads-in-the-sand stalemate. Until the next 'Sewol', or 'Sampoong'. Koreans are waiting for the government to instigate a policy shift on safety. They don't need that, they need to start from the bottom up and meet the government half way. Sure, the government could produce safety films, posters, and campaigns, and they definitely should do those things, but until Koreans shed this pervasive macho posturing of 'rules are for squares', then sadly, these things will continue to occur. Changing these attitudes though, so that safety drills take place, is the biggest obstacle of them all.

We have started a Facebook group, 'Get Fire and Safety Drills into Korean Schools Now'. Feel free to join. Let's pressure, gently, our schools into instigating fire drills. It's one small step that could stop the next 'Sewol' being your school.


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  2. Well said.

    I think that the government does have a part to play here. I remember when the government mandated helmets for bicycles at home. I laughed at kids who wore them and called them "Spaceballs" b/c bike helmets were really un-cool back then. I mean big, white bulging things that made you look like a Q-tip or, as said earlier, a Spaceball.

    It was not long after that an entire generation after me had grown up with bike helmets and they actually became kinda cool. Same thing for seat-belts in cars, car seats for kids, crumple zones on cars, air bags etc etc.

    Some times it takes regulation to force change and then, with the stigma removed, everyone with a brain realizes that it's better to be safe when it comes to kids.

    This leads to consumer demand and in the case of air bags and crumple zones which were not government initiatives but rather a result of free market forces serving a consumer demand, leads to innovation in the area of safety.

    As an adult I don't want to be told what to do but if it concerns kids then we all have to play along.