Calls mount to tighten reins on youth boot camps

A group of high school students last week braved blistering weather and wild sea waves to take part in a marine-style boot camp. But the camp turned into a nightmare when five died after being swept away by strong currents.

The incident marks the second case of teen deaths at a private camp in less than a year, raising concerns over the growing number of unregulated private youth training facilities.

There are reportedly 20 such camps across the country, and most of them run without licenses since the current law does not call for fines or other punitive measures.

Parents are now worried about the safety and reliability of youth camps. And critics say the lack of government regulations, or a central organisation to monitor them, has put the students in danger.

The five high-school juniors were taking part in a youth boot camp along with 193 other pupils in Taean County on the west coast.

Witnesses say the teenagers were swept away by a strong current when they jumped into the sea without life jackets, as ordered to by the camp instructors.

Only two drill instructors were there to supervise the roughly 90 students in the water. Seven teachers, including the principal of the school, were in attendance at the camp, but were allegedly drinking alcohol at a nearby restaurant when the incident occurred.

Last summer two students were found dead after going missing from a summer camp on an island. A fire claimed the lives of 23 nursery school children at a summer camp in 1999.

Critics claim the recent incident reveals how poorly private youth camps are organised and how they fail to meet basic safety requirements.

Since 2006, the Korea Youth Work Agency, which is responsible for inspecting and accrediting private youth camps, has been ordering camp organizers to meet a set of standards in order to obtain a license.

Some of those requirements include the presence of qualified instructors during students' activities ― there should be no more than 15 students per teacher for outdoor activities and fewer than 30 for indoor classes, according to the agency.

Yet, many private camps, including the one where the five teenagers died last week, do not follow the rules, an official from the agency admitted.

"They are not obliged to get certification from us. I think that's why there are so many unlicensed summer camps run by uncertified individuals," said Kim Hyun-gyung, accreditation manager of the Korea Youth Work Agency.

"Also many camp organizers think it is difficult to get certification from us. But we require them to meet the basic standards necessary for the safety and security of students. This shouldn't be optional."

The government proposed last year a revised law regarding youth camps following the arrest of an instructor who was found guilty of physically and sexually harassing students participating in a walking trip.

The 56-year-old instructor had no qualifications to run the cross-country walking trip and even had a criminal record.

The revised law, which is due to take effect from November this year, requires that outdoor camping activities for students be registered in advance.

Critics say, however, that there is a clear loophole in the law that lets unauthorized individuals continue to carry out youth boot camps.

"The revised regulation can only limit activities that involve students traveling from one place to another such as a walking trip. It doesn't apply to the ones where students stay in one place, such as a marine boot camp," explained Hwang Jin-ja of the Korea Consumer Agency.

Hwang said that she believes the government should require all private camps be required to purchase insurance to help prevent another such tragedy.

"In order to sign up for insurance, camp operators need to meet the safety and security standards and if they don't, they should be barred from getting insurance. I think the insuring obligation may be a good start to regulate private camps."

Critics also point out that there is currently no control tower to monitor private and not-for-profit youth camps. The Education Ministry, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism are all engaged in running youth camps, but each has different guidelines and rules.

"It is urgent that the government set up a system to monitor and regulate all outdoor school activities. They should check whether schools have proper arrangements in place so children are safe," according Park Bum-yi, chairwoman of the civic group the National Association of Parents for True Education.

Park added that parents also should reconsider sending their children to military-themed camps or physically challenging camps during summer break.

"Parents believe such training is to develop students' toughness and give them discipline and mental strength. But there must be other ways to develop the skills without risking students' lives."

"There will be another safety accident unless parents change their mind," she added.