S Korea holds unprecedented nationwide fire drill

SEOUL - Workers, shoppers and hotel guests evacuated buildings across South Korea on Friday in an unprecedented nationwide fire drill to beef up public safety following the ferry disaster that claimed around 300 lives in April.

Public buildings, including department stores, shopping malls, bus terminals and schools emptied simultaneously as the 20-minute exercise began at 2.00pm (0500 GMT).

South Korea has held mass civil emergency drills - largely connected to the risk of attack by North Korea - for decades, but a spokesman for the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said Friday's exercise was the first of its kind.

It comes two months after South Korea's worst civil disaster, with the sinking of the 6,825-tonne passenger ferry Sewol of the southern coast on April 16. Close to 300 people were killed and the response of the government and emergency services came in for intense criticism, prompting President Park Geun-Hye to announce that the national coastguard would be disbanded.

The NEMA spokesman said the drill was aimed at honing emergency response times to a major fire, with a particular focus on the "golden hour" - the time period following traumatic injury during which there is the highest likelihood that prompt medical treatment will prevent death.

"We want to see how quickly we can create and maintain proper access for fire vehicles and ambulances during the golden hour," the spokesman told AFP.

With public confidence shattered by the Sewol tragedy, President Park vowed a complete overhaul of national safety practices, which critics said had been sidelined in the drive for economic development.