TOKYO — The concept of “balle balle!” or “quick, quick!” is at the very core of Koreans’ view of themselves. After rising from the ashes of war in the 1950s, bouncing back from financial collapse in the late 1990s, and growing into a technology-and-entertainment powerhouse over the last decade, South Korea has turned its ability to get the job done in a bewilderingly short time into a national hallmark.
But amid grief, recriminations and breathless news coverage, the investigation into the tragic sinking of the passenger ferry Sewol on April 16 has exposed deep cracks in this narrative.
Details of the crew’s actions leading up to the accident — when an inexperienced, 26-year-old third mate was guiding the huge ferry — and their confusion during the botched evacuation, paint a picture of potentially criminal incompetence. Families outraged by how long it’s taken to recover the bodies of their loved ones have trained their anger on the government, whose skills at crisis management have looked disturbingly weak.
While Malaysia also deserves criticism for its dismal handling of the search for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, the government there is burdened by a one-party system that has bred incompetence and hubris. What explains this calamity in high-tech, proudly democratic Korea?
What we have here is an object lesson of the limits of using rapid gross domestic product as the dominant metric for a nation’s success. The Sewol tragedy is a wakeup call for Korea to address the blind spots in its political and business culture.
One accident is no reason to indict an entire government, never mind 50 million people. Any attempt to do so is as hyperbolic as it is unfair. The developed and developing worlds alike have reason to be awed by Korea’s economic triumphs — beating the dreaded middle-income trap, creating a stable of companies that have Apple and Toyota looking over their shoulders, blanketing the world with its K-pop music, edgy movies and television dramas.
But man-made disasters reveal much about how far a nation really has come, and when it’s time to plot a new course.
Korea’s problems trace in part from the collision between its quick-quick culture and a government that remains obsessed with bureaucracy, hierarchy and turf. Why, for example, did it take nearly one hour for the government’s Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters to begin rescue efforts for the 476 people, 325 of them high school students, on the ferry?
In February, President Park Geun-hye decided to strengthen the security ministry’s role in disaster management — a move that deemphasized the more experienced National Emergency Management Agency. All Koreans, not just distraught family members, have a right to question whether such moves have hurt or helped the government’s ability to withstand crises.
Korean business culture also deserves a thorough reexamination. Are ferry operators putting lives at risk to boost profits in a hyper-competitive environment? Should ships plying domestic waters like the Sewol be subject to the more stringent safety standards applied to those that sail internationally?
Korea’s culture of basing senior appointments on seniority — as a reward for time served, not for ability or talent — must go, too. Ministries and companies run by officials who feel a greater sense of entitlement to the perks of office than responsibility are a disaster waiting to happen. A corporate culture in which a ferry captain lets his third mate make a risky turn and then tells passengers to stay put below deck as he scurries to safety needs a serious reality check.
So does Korea’s obsession with rapid GDP at all costs. Governments tend to view rising living standards as the holy grail of credibility and competence. In China, for instance, never mind that millions of people die each year from pollution-related illnesses as studies warn that blackening skies and toxic water may be causing genetic harm in kids. China’s 7.4 percent growth absolves the Communist Party of all manner of sins.
But only for so long. A first-rate economy means little if government institutions prove third-rate in a crisis.
Has rapid GDP growth made Koreans happier? In a July 2012 column, I explored the riddle of why Koreans are so morose if they’re supposedly getting so rich. It was based on a life-satisfaction study of 32 countries, one in which Korea came in 31st. One explanation was that Korea’s government had long been too obsessed with growing rapidly and catching up with Japan to address quality-of-life issues.
It’s time for Korea’s government to catch up to its own economic success. President Park often tosses around buzzwords like “safety,” “principles” and “accountability,” all of which appear to have been sorely lacking in the ferry crisis. While Korea’s economy may be ready for prime time, it’s not yet clear that its state and its society are.
William Pesek is a Tokyo-based columnist for Bloomberg View.