The resignation of South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, and a public apology by its President, Park Geun-hye, over a ferry disaster, has not calmed the people of South Korea, grieving over the unexpected death of about 200 students who were on an excursion. Sewol, the ferry, sank on April 16 in southwestern South Korea, engulfing the country in sorrow, which quickly turned into anger against the government. Heads of state and heads of government are not directly involved in the implementation of safety standards, but that did not prevent people from expressing their rage against the country’s leadership: the President was heckled and wreaths sent by her to the school in Ansan in south of Seoul were returned by the inconsolable families. What appears to have angered the people the most is the lack of urgency exhibited by those responsible for handling the emergency response system: the ferry took two-and-a-half hours to sink fully, and yet only 174 people were saved. The fury has not subsided even after the announcement by the President that she would establish a Federal agency to handle rescue efforts during major disasters. Her government would also act to end the nexus between the regulatory agencies and industries, which breeds corruption and overlooks obvious lapses in safety standards enforcement. It is still not clear what caused the accident, but the South Korean leadership has, as an immediate response, initiated steps to make sure that such incidents do not recur.
Underlying the tragedy is the familiar tale of fraud and inefficiency, shockingly poor work ethics and indifferent people in positions of leadership, unenforced rules governing public services and sloppy, or worse, laidback, regulators. The failures get compounded as industry watchdogs, instead of working to boost the faith of the people in the system, chose instead to work on maximising profits. In short, this accident could happen anywhere in the world where such conditions exist. In this case, when the ferry left Incheon on April 15, it was top-heavy with cabins recently added to its upper deck. There are reports of overloading of cargo. The Korean Shipping Association regulates shipping, and it is obvious that the industry body had overlooked serious irregularities under its watch. Similar stories abound in many countries, including India. There are many lessons to be drawn from the disaster in South Korea. For instance, it should be a basic tenet that the industry and regulator should not be from the same pool of talent. It is time for governments to put in place measures to reward compliance and deal firmly with violators of basic safety standards who put lives at risk.