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Building a safe country after SewolThe Korean people can again use their power to ensure government promises are kept
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승인 2014.05.20  17:23:48
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▲ 100 marchers joined the silent protest on May 10 as people congregated at Jeju City Hall as part of the "Stay Still" demonstrations sweeping the country in response to Sewol. Photo by Douglas MacDonald

The intense public anger at the enormity of the Sewol tragedy remains. It is over a month since the ferry sank and the focus has shifted with each new release of information.

Anger has been directed at the captain and certain crew members as they ordered passengers to “stay still” while abandoning ship. The media has also been criticized for misreporting as outlets competed for 24-hour-news coverage.

The government has come in for the most sustained criticism. Despite Park Geun-hye’s second visit to Jindo on May 4, bereaved families finally reached the Blue House on their second attempt on May 9 after being turned back three weeks earlier. Despite issued apologies, many believe the premier is still ducking her responsibilities.

Targeting public energy for change

Perhaps due to the diverse and shifting targets of public ire, the movement which could well catch the public’s attention is one of defiance and solidarity. Beginning in Seoul on May 3, the “Stay Still” movement has reached all major cities nationwide and thousands have taken to the streets. Hundreds have marched in Jeju, first on Saturday, May 10, and then again on the weekend of May 17.

Images of people wearing masks and carnations with placards reading “Stay Still” have become a meme in channeling the upswell of feeling and have spread through social media.
Since Sewol, however, many have recycled the tired cliches of Koreans' Confucian obedience to authority. Yet Koreans know more than most how protest achieves substantive social and political change.

Over the last century, from battles for self-determination under Japanese rule, to street protests for social justice, workers’ rights and democracy under decades of dictatorship, people power in Korea has few peers across the world. Within living memory, Korean people have sacrificed their lives to make Seoul accountable.

Although still a young movement, the pervading sentiment of “stay still” is “we will no longer listen to your orders.” In many ways it is a proverbial middle finger to the ruling elite, but the ultimate goal must be a safe Korea, where institutions protect and serve the public. Let’s hope the somewhat passive statement of non-action goes on to achieve transformative, positive power.

Building a safe country for all

The virulent attacks on the media have most recently targeted an executive at KBS who is claimed to have said that the 300 dead are outnumbered by Korea’s annual road deaths. His alleged comments were heartless, but inadvertently hit the target: Public safety.

Korea does have dangerous roads, leading the OECD in both pedestrian and car accident deaths in 2013. Korea also leads for work-related deaths with the International Labour Organization among advanced countries. Yes, Korea’s rapid development handicapped its ability to build a safe society, but enough time has passed since “The Miracle on the Han River” to build efficient systems of safety which should run through the DNA of all healthy democracies.

Sewol was the ultimate failure in public safety, but the solutions are not as daunting as recovering the corpses from the seabed. Building a safe society begins here, with local officials making society safe and accessible for all. It also begins with mature citizenship and each and every one of us contributing to safety in our communities.

Public authorities should ensure our transport systems and public buildings are safe and accessible for all, but as citizens and residents we should also ensure traffic laws are obeyed and public regulations are followed.

Health and safety and consideration for the weak are at the core of democratic values and I believe this is the true tragedy of Sewol: The weak were abandoned by a system which values expedient profit and corporate freedom over children’s safety.

On Jeju, too, we use vast amounts of public funds to build marinas, cruise terminals and tourist museums. Why don’t we channel that money into building institutions and infrastructure dedicated to our safety throughout society? Can’t we sacrifice a million extra foreign tourists to allow citizens and visitors a happier life?

“I will usher in a new era of hope whereby the happiness of each citizen becomes the bedrock of our nation’s strength,” said Park Geun-hye at her inauguration ceremony last year. In her second year in office, as those citizens now take to the streets vowing not to “stay still,” it would be a bold move to repeat those words now.

The lesson of Sewol is that we must build a safer country from today, not just by vowing not to stay still, but by making the changes we all can, as individuals and as a community. Does that sound too daunting?

“One small movement, one great miracle.”

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