Lagging Response to Haiti Disaster Reveals Korea's Real Status

Countries around the world are racing against the clock to save lives in Haiti, where bodies are still buried underneath the rubble of the massive earthquake and the number of patients in need of emergency medical care continues to rise. Just 48 hours after the earthquake struck, Japan airlifted 30 containers to Haiti and set up a mobile hospital staffed by 20 doctors. The hospital has surgery rooms, intensive care units and recovery areas, with a massive generator providing electricity 24 hours a day and a self-contained water purification system. Eight other countries, including France, Norway and the U.S., have also set up hospitals equipped with state-of-the-art communications systems enabling them to keep in touch with on-site rescue teams.

Standing next to those hospitals is a tent housing five or six Korean doctors who are mostly just splinting fractures, suturing wounds and handing out medicine. They were not sent by the Korean government, but are part of a team hurriedly put together by a university hospital and a civilian aid group. An emergency rescue team sent by the Korean government did not arrive in Haiti until five days after the quake.

The Korean government initially appeared to be content with the US$1 million in aid it had offered to the Caribbean country. It only belatedly decided to send rescue workers after some 28 rescue teams from 22 countries were already sifting through the rubble for survivors. Because of the foot-dragging, the Korean rescue workers are working in areas that have already been searched, and thus are engaged mainly in discovering dead bodies.

As was the case after the Indonesian tsunami in 2005 and the earthquake in Pakistan in 2007, Korean medical workers in Haiti are providing only rudimentary services in makeshift tents, having to dig drainage ditches with shovels. In contrast, Australia, Germany and Japan quickly flew rescue teams into Haiti and sent trucks and other heavy equipment by ship to build mobile hospitals. Japan stores medical equipment, drugs and mobile emergency kits at its airports so that it can dispatch emergency teams around the world within 48 hours of a disaster. This meticulous planning has made Japan among the world's leading countries in providing disaster relief.

As soon as President Lee Myung-bak ordered Korea's aid to Haiti to be commensurate with its national status, the government raised the amount of assistance from $1 million to $12 million. But Korea lacks the means to deliver the additional personnel and equipment that can be mobilized with the expanded aid money. "We plan to open a temporary office and dispatch three representatives to Haiti, where there is no Korean embassy," a Foreign Ministry official said. The situation in Haiti is changing rapidly, yet the Korean government is still "planning" to do things. At this rate, circumstances on the ground may have changed again by the time the new rescue workers are ready to go.

It takes more than money to elevate a country's status. Korea is the world's 13th-largest economy and the host of this year's G20 Summit, but its humanitarian efforts are still miles behind those of the world's advanced countries. Korea's brand image ranks 33rd in the world, but it ranks among the bottom of the member countries of the OECD in terms of observance of laws. According to a study by the Board of Audit and Inspection last year, 140 civic groups were discovered to have embezzled some W50 billion. Korea's response to the disaster in Haiti will show whether it truly possesses the national status, attitude and standards worthy of hosting the G20 Summit.

englishnews@chosun.com / Jan. 25, 2010 11:21 KST