S Korea ferry sinking: Questions about safety standards, deferential culture

S Korea ferry sinking: Questions about safety standards, deferential culture

SEOUL - The poignancy of South Korea's maritime disaster has been heightened by the number of teenage students still missing, but questions are also being raised about the nation's safety standards and a social culture that promotes an unquestioning respect for authority, whether in schools, the military or even major companies.

For example, a hierarchical cockpit culture has been pointed to as the cause behind various South Korean air crashes dating back to the 1990s.

The country's "zero-to-hero" national success story has given the country impressive hardware, but some elements of software still lag.

An editorial in the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's best-selling daily, opined that "Ferry tragedy could have been avoided", in a stinging critique of lax national safety standards that have been the cause of a range of bloody disasters, from building collapses and subway fires to airline accidents.

Questions have also arisen over whether the students in the ferry should have had a more independent mindset, and ignored orders over the ferry public address system to stay put.

Indeed, those students who got out safely said they deliberately ignored the orders.

The students from Danwon High School in Asan, a middle-class satellite city of Seoul, were on their way to Jeju resort island for a four-day field trip.

Of the 325 students aboard the doomed ferry, which was carrying 475 passengers and crew as well as cars, only 75 have thus far been rescued, according to government figures.

Four of the nine people confirmed dead so far are also students, while two are teachers.

"Korean teenagers are very accustomed to being told what to do and what to think," said Mr Mike Breen, Seoul-based author of The Koreans.

"Chances are, it was the naughty ones who disobeyed," he added.

"It is normal and natural to obey," said Ma Yoojin, a 16-year-old student at Jangwon Middle School in central Seoul where students have been debating what they would have done in the situation.

"But not in that kind of disaster," she added.

This article was published on April 18 in The Straits Times.

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