South Korea's Sewol ferry disaster in April has not only been one of the country's most tragic events in recent memory, it is also one that is leaving an indelible mark on Korean society. The incident claimed hundreds of young lives, led to a public outpouring of anger, capital punishment charges and several key resignations, including that of the Prime Minister.
President Park Geun-hye has attempted to address the nation's concerns in a tearful apology. Some have even likened the resulting toll on the national psyche to that wrought by the Asian Financial Crisis (AFC) of 1997-98. Indeed, there is a similar collective sense of frustration. During the financial crisis, seventeen years ago, Korean households famously queued up to donate their gold in support of their beleaguered economy. Participating in a collective campaign to aid the country in crisis, they sacrificed treasured heirlooms to be melted down into ingots and readied for sale on the international market.
Now, Korea's middle class has risen. Many who were likely less empowered decades ago are now enjoying more affluence, and the fact that such a tragedy could occur in the face of such rising wealth has led to much of the infuriation. Now, Korea's growing middle class is also better poised to demand safer infrastructure. Their calls to boost safety across the board are being heard; the president has vowed a review of the nation's systems "from scratch."
Decades of economic success have come largely from a focus on efficiency, speed and self-sacrifice while perhaps compromising safety, sustainability and process, in some cases. Often credited for fast economic development, the public is asking for changes in the close relationships between government and business conglomerates. The 1997 financial crisis enabled a painful process of structural reforms that scrapped the former era's growth recipe of leverage and central planning.
But people are now mobilizing to demand deep, fundamental changes in regulations and accountability. As an example, there have been recent silent demonstrations by mothers pushing strollers, highlighting the need for better child safety measures. A post-disaster Korea will be very different from before.
President Park vowed prompt execution of reforms promised at inauguration a year ago. Korean society utilized this crisis as it has done with others, as an opportunity for painful reform. The AFC enabled the country to improve transparency, resource allocation, and to scrap outdated or old practices. Department store collapses in the 1990's brought about overhauls in building codes and construction practices. This time, the more affluent, socially aware and better educated middle class, is forcing President Park's administration to urgently fix problems in relation to this disaster. I believe that the resulting reforms will enhance safety, as well as the sustainability of Korean economy.
The reforms by President Park should have happened before losing more than three hundred lives. Still, it is never too late to make a more sustainable and safe Korea for its well deserving people.