The sinking of the ferry Sewol with around 300 teenagers aboard has shocked and angered the country like few other tragedies. Many demand stiff punishments for the captain, who was among the first to escape the sinking ship, as well as the officials who bungled attempts to rescue passengers still trapped inside the vessel.
As time passes, that rage is shifting into profound sadness, and anxiety for the children of a country with flagrant disregard for safety regulations and adults only out to save their own hide, to say nothing of official bodies who simply do not seem to care.
A group of women in their 50s gathered at the entrance to an apartment complex last weekend and nodded in agreement as they talked about the risks of having only one child here. "I told my daughter-in-law that she must have at least two kids," said one woman. Such talk used to be common in Korea decades ago, when the country was still emerging from the ashes of the Korean War and it was not uncommon to lose a child or two to disease or accident and the social safety net was virtually nonexistent. But it is quite shocking to hear such talk today.
But anxiety is growing as accident after major accident proves how ill-equipped the country is to deal with them effectively. In July of last year, five high school students drowned on an endurance program at a boot camp for kids. In February of this year, nine university freshmen were crushed to death during a welcoming event when the roof of a gym collapsed under heavy snow. Those deaths were especially shocking because they occurred during events that most young Koreans experience at one time in their lives.
The variety of risks is also growing. Every year children are reported killed as they get off the school bus, yet school buses still fail to obey basic safety rules. And the government does not appear to be stepping up safety inspections of summer camp facilities used by millions of children, or to be checking whether adults who run those facilities have been properly.
Parents must assume that everything will be all right as long as teachers are involved or camps have a certified business license.
In 2012, 326 children under 12 died in accidents. Traffic accidents claimed the lives of 131, while 53 drowned and 36 were killed in a fall. The child mortality rate from accidents stands at 4.3 per 100,000, much higher than in the U.K. (2.5 per 100,000) and Germany (2.6 per 100,000).
Just one month ago, the government announced a goal of lowering the child mortality rate from accidents to the level of advanced countries by 2017. As part of the plan, it will require all school buses to be registered, while recreational facilities for children must undergo regular inspections. This should have been done years ago.
The government habitually steps up inspections only after a major tragedy claimed the lives of children, and when the uproar wanes they seem to stop again. How can the public have any trust in such a government? The only thing it has done since the sinking of the Sewol is to tell public schools not to send their students on field trips at all. If the public continues to feel such mounting jitters, more and more people will decide it is better not to have any children.
A country that cannot provide a safe environment to raise children has no hope for the future.
By Kim Yeon-ju from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk