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Are we in Danger?Investigating the loopholes in the current Korean disaster management system
Koh Soo-min  |
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승인 2014.06.03  08:24:53
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 “ALL PASSENGERS on Sewol-ho have been rescued. Please rest assured” – the official announcement on 16 April, 12p.m., by the South Korean government. Yet a few moments later, the government corrected its statement – over a hundred were still not recovered and three were revealed to be dead already, within hours of the accident. The people of South Korea were in a state of a speechless shock, and the families of the victims were naively fooled by the false announcements. The Sewol-ho ferry was carrying a staggering 459 people when it was capsized near Gwanmae Island, marking its place as the biggest man-made calamity so far in 21st century Korea. However, what makes it even more tragic is the fact that Korea has, in fact, experienced similar accidents in the past few decades, including the collapse of Sampoong Department Store that caused 501 deaths in 1995, in the fire in Daegu subway which brought 190 dead in 2003, and in several others. Had we, as a nation, paid more attention in improving Korea’s disaster management system from the painful mistakes of the past, would we still have lost numerous people in the most recent Sewol incident?




What is disaster management?




  According to the International Federation of Red Cross, disaster management, or else emergency management, is understood as “efforts of communities, businesses and governments to plan for and coordinate all personnel and materials required to mitigate and to recover from natural and man-made disasters.” In other words, “disaster management” is a holistic term that encircles all materials and personnel that is needed to prevent and recover from any kinds of disaster. Therefore, all logistics or organisations associated with disaster management are categorised as “disaster management systems.”


   Although there are numerous disaster management systems worldwide in all shapes and sizes, they all work according to a similar scheme divided into five stages. The foremost stage is titled “prevention.” Measures at this stage deal with the actual prevention of disasters at all levels, by establishing teams of professionals, for instance. The second stage, “mitigation” is similar to “prevention” in that it takes place before any disaster occurs, but it is performed at a more personal level. It includes practising emergency drills or even learning to properly arrange furniture in earthquake regions. The next stage is “preparedness.” This is the stage whereby the actual disaster is addressed. Organised teams of professionals are expected to work in a systematic and especially timely manner to maintain temporary shelter, food supply, transport and power. The fourth stage is “response,” which addresses the people directly affected by the disaster by mainly rescuing victims and helping them recover. Finally, the last stage is titled “recovery,” and it begins as soon as the immediate threat of a disaster is eliminated. It includes normalising the inflicted areas, as well as compensating for any financial losses. These five stages work as reciprocal parts of a single engine, which as a whole builds a country’s disaster management system. Because the system is divided into stages that each addresses a disaster at a different level – from individual to governmental – it is impossible for a single organisation to be held responsible for the entire system. Instead, it is more rational to distribute each stage to different individuals, civic groups, companies, and governments.





   Whereas the five-stage method is the norm in addressing disasters today in countries including Korea, the Korean disaster management system has taken a long way in getting into its current day framework. Currently, the pivotal organisations in disaster management at the governmental level are the Ministry of Security and Public Administration (MOSPA) and the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). However, it is relatively recent in history that such an organised and systematic disaster management system was discussed in Korea. After the capsizing of the Hoe-ree ferry in 1993, the collapse of the bridge Sung-soo in 1994, and the destruction of Sampoong Department Store in 1995 – three major disasters in three consecutive years – it became clearer than ever that Korea needed to stabilise its disaster management system. The rising signs of insecurity encouraged President Roh Moo-hyun to institute NEMA during his presidency, but it was only in its elementary state of establishment, and thus, unable to manifest much power or leadership. In order to compromise for this, President Lee Myung-bak further established the Ministry of Public Administration and Security (MOPAS), generating a double-centred disaster management system in effect, along with NEMA. It was when the current president, President Park Geun-hye came to her post that the current system was initialised. President Park modified MOPAS to MOSPA, changing the title of the organisation by putting “security” before “public administration” in an effort to concentrate more government aids to security. Also, in doing so, President Park granted MOSPA the ability to coordinate all governmental disaster management measures, thereby making it the “control tower” of all disaster management systems. In order to account for the double-centred system, she attributed MOSPA to manage social disasters and NEMA to manage natural disasters.


   This brief history shows how the Korean disaster management system went through big-amplitude changes each time a new president was elected. Certainly, those alterations are signs of the government’s genuine effort to create a stable and more effective disaster management system. Even so, whether those changes were actually effective is still questionable. One of the biggest issues that arose after the catastrophic Sewol-ho incident was the slow governmental response to the disaster. Despite the government’s continuous efforts to make the process as effective and systematic as possible, why is the Korean management system still slow to respond to a disaster?




What are the loopholes?


   One of the reasons for the slow response of the Korean management system to disasters can be attributed to the constant renewal of the disaster management system itself, every time a new president is elected. As constant renewal makes it inevitable for any kind of system to stabilise before there can be any further improvement, confusion becomes inevitable; no one knows for sure what needs to be done and when. The essence of the problem is that this confusion is no exception for officials in position of authority, either. Even the authorities who are responsible for making decisions are at a loss as to what procedure must be taken to process management. Such a combination of weaknesses in the system and lack of professionalism, consequently and inescapably accounts for slow a response to disasters.


   In other words, the current system generally lacks professional personnel. In fact, although MOSPA was entitled as the “control tower” when President Park took office, not many professional officials capable of managing disasters were assigned to MOSPA. YTN News revealed a blatant fact related to this. According to their report, the minister as well as most of other executives of MOSPA were inexperienced in the field of disaster management. Instead, their career background lay mostly in the fields of local administration, which is inherently different from background in disaster management. If this really is the case, then it appears as if the current state of the Korean disaster management system is under a constant turmoil of change, consequently causing confusion and lack of professionalism that, in turn, leads to slow governmental response to disaster.


   Another problem in the current disaster management system lies in the “prevention” stage. In particular, those in posts of authority lack responsibility, when it is the “responsibility itself” that sparks any kind of managerial action in the first place. The lack of responsibility in authorities was outright demonstrated in the recent Sewol-ho disaster. “If the captain [of Sewol-ho] informed the passengers to board off the ship, there would have been less victims. I saw all the rescue boats floating by the sinking ship, helplessly seeking for escaped passengers of which there were not many” said Lee, who wished to stay anonymous, pointing out the lack of responsibility of the Sewol-ho captain. According to the KBS documentary Sisa-gi-hwek-chang, had there been a proper announcement to board off the ship, it would only have taken 15 minutes for everyone to safely escape. Similarly in the Daegu subway accident in 2003, the subway captain also escaped without taking responsibility over the safety of his passengers and even until today, this is recognised as the major reason for the deaths. As can be seen from those accidents, it is rather clear that the deaths by major man-made disasters today in Korea could have been avoided if those in authority had been more responsible.


   However, it is possible to wonder why the victims themselves failed to act immediately and appropriately in an emergency situation. The answer lies in that, according to a simulation research by Sisa-gi-hwek-chang, most people feel insecure and anxious about acting upon their individual judgements when they sense danger. Instead, most feel the need to rely on professionals or those in authority, leaving them with no choice but to wait for orders. This particular aspect of human nature, in fact, once again highlights the importance of training those in authority to have more responsibility over their passengers or guests.


   The necessity of training the authorities of their safety responsibility is clear. Yet such a training system is precarious in Korea today. The first issue regarding the responsibility of authorities is related to following manuals. Manuals are guidelines or blueprints that should be followed in the case of emergency for virtually any situation in the nation. Therefore, the fact that there are approximately 3000 manuals in the country today, gives the impression that Korea is a vastly safe country, fully prepared for any kind of emergencies. However, these useful resources cannot manifest their effectiveness when they are not followed properly – and that is precisely what is often happening today. As opposed to the situation in Korea, however, sailors in France for example, practise their safety manuals as if there has been a real accident every week. As the saying goes, practise makes perfect; thus, even armed with full sets of manuals, authorities will not be able to perform their job in case of disasters without a systematic practising regime. The second problem involved with the responsibility of authorities is related to the Korean employment system. Due to the problem of temporary positions and irregular workers in the Korean workforce, if the authorities who are responsible for safety are temporary workers, it is unlikely that they will deem themselves as responsible for anything. “I think those thoughts are inevitable,” says Kim Sook-hye, who is herself an irregular worker. According to Kim, “as temporary workers, we never know when we will be fired. This will be true whether you are hired to a post of authority or an ordinary position.” It appears that Kim is correct, at least in the case of the Sewol-ho accident. The captain of the ship, Lee Jun-seok, was revealed to be a temporary worker, hired by the ship company Chonghaejin Marine Co., Ltd., which would have accounted for his lack of sense of responsibility.


Then now what?  


   It is evident that Korea has experienced glooms from several disasters in the past few decades. The collapse of Sampoong Department Store, the fire in the Daegu subway, the sinking of Cheon-an-ham, and the recent Sewol-ho disaster – they all broke our hearts and outraged the nation. Although those accidents occurred over some time lapses, we lost victims in similar ways each time. Then we constantly found ourselves lamenting words like “we missed the Golden rescue time,” or “rescue responses were too slow.” And even so, despite our constant dissatisfaction and willingness to improve our system, we still find ourselves in a similar, helpless position today. The deliberation of a long-term solution is integral at this point, and this change must begin from questioning the present. What are some of the questions we must ask ourselves? What are we to do now?


   The first question we can ask is this: today, the disaster management system is being managed by two governmental organisations – MOSPA and NEMA. However, is this effective? Certainly, the government must have had its own intentions when it created a double-centred system. In theory, having MOSPA manage social disasters and NEMA manage natural disasters, the system should be more effective, professional, and quick in its management measures. However, what happens if a “combined” disaster occurs? For instance, which organisation should be held responsible if a disaster-like “power plant dysfunction due to an earthquake” occurs? In such cases it is difficult to determine whether the disaster is natural or social in its nature, generating difficulty in allocating the disaster solely to either MOSPA or NEMA.


   Also, now may be the time to reflect upon Korean work ethic. The general structure in the Korean workforce is homogeneous. That is workers are, in general, to wait for their authorities’ orders to act. Yoon Dong-geun (Prof., Disaster Management Engin., Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology) comments that “the on-site workers who have more experience than office-working authorities have to wait for their orders.” This may be effective in office or administrative jobs where time is not so much of a factor, but is not effective in fields like disaster management for which on-site analysis and quick judgement are integral aspects of the system. Therefore, we should question whether the current work ethic of on-site workers receiving orders from less experienced authorities should be altered in some way, at least for disaster management systems. Yoon also claims that “if only the authorities have the power to make major decisions, the on-site workers – whose judgement and actions are more important in reality – are left helpless while they wait for orders. There should be a system organised for them to have some authority over making decisions.”  


*                 *                 *  


   The best idiom to describe times of disaster is perhaps “fixing the stable after losing the cow.” This is a sardonic Korean idiom that is similar to the English idiom “crying over spilled milk.” This Korea idiom criticises how people tend to try to amend their mistake after something has already gone wrong. Maybe we do not know the true meaning of this idiom by heart – maybe we are still in the process of learning it the hard way, by continuing to “lose the cow” through our loopholes in disaster management systems. The lesson that should be learnt from the recent disaster as well as the previous ones is clear: a momentary surge of attention and mere criticism towards disasters are not enough. Instead, we should seek to build upon our mistakes, and make sure that similar mistakes are never made again. From individuals, to business, and to the government, we should work as a whole to better our disaster management system - in doing so, we will never lose innocent victims again.





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