The ferry disaster on April 16 has drained Korea of spirit as divers continue to search for victims off the southwest coast, with hundreds of dead bodies already retrieved and about 30 passengers still missing.
Reporters at the scene, analysts, parents who have lost children and casual observers are all looking for someone to blame for the ferry's sinking as it was making its way from Incheon to Jeju Island. Some blame the captain and crew for telling the passengers to stay in their cabins while valuable time for their evacuation was lost. The crew, it seems, lost no time getting off the ship and saving their own lives. Many blame the president and government for their mishandling of the rescue operations.
The prime minister has resigned and leaders of various maritime agencies have been prevented from leaving the country. Still others blame the ferry company owners for recklessly altering the ship, overloading it with cargo, and failing to even provide even minimal training to staff.
Makeshift memorials dot the landscape of this grieving country. In a park in Daegu, yellow ribbons hung along a line in the sun. Teenage girls, the same age as the victims of the Sewol, wrote messages expressing their sorrow. Sadness fills every nook and cranny of this country.
A Korean friend shared her perspective on the disaster. "Korea may lead the world in technology and manufacturing," she said, "but in terms of safety, we still behave like a developing country."
Moments earlier, as I was about to cross a major thoroughfare to meet her, I watched half a dozen cars run the red light as pedestrians stood nearby. It is common, in fact routine, for Korean drivers to run red lights here. Stop signs? Many are hidden from view, obstructed by poles, trees, and overgrown shrubbery. Often they are simply ignored.
The campus of Yeungnam University is littered with red stop signs at various crossings and intersections. Over a period of two years, I have never seen a single Korean driver stop at any of these signs -- not once. It is not surprising then that Korea's driver fatality rate is twice as high as in the U.S. Koreans seem to think that stopping at a stop sign is optional, more of a guideline than a law.
Disregard for safety, it appears, was a key contributor to the ferry disaster. The ship had been dangerously overloaded nearly every time it left port since it started service in Korea. Maritime and government officials at all levels seem to have either colluded with fleet owners or overlooked freight safety regulations.
Many Koreans are expressing dismay and embarrassment about the state of safety across the country. Others wonder if their cultural tendency to rush from one thing to another, a dynamic known as "ppali ppali" (“the hurry-up culture”) is causing them to cut corners and to put people at risk.
As I ponder this situation, an iconic bumper sticker comes to mind, "Think globally, act locally." Koreans have ridden the wave of success generated by their global icons such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Kia and even K-Pop. Yet when it comes to safety, safety close to home, most turn away.
As I was about to leave the park in Daegu on that bright and sunny day, I watched hundreds of people, mostly young children, having fun biking in designated riding areas. Everyone was enjoying themselves. Only one child was wearing a safety helmet. Safety in Korea, it appears, is someone else's problem.
By Steven Schuit, a professor of English at Yeungnam University
(He blogs about his expat experience at http://Koreanbookends.blogspot.com/.)