South Korean Human Rights Monitor


Right to Safety amid a Culture of Short-termism

Dahee Kim May 15, 2015

Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”. Considering the right to life, liberty and security of person as a fundamental human right, the Human Rights Committee in its General Comment 6 (1982) on Article 6 of the ICCPR (which protects the right to life) asserted the importance of the right.

It would be hard to disagree with the idea that people’s consciousness of human rights has risen dramatically along with the expansion and international codification of individual human rights, and both international and national societies established several norms to protect human rights. However, some may feel that individual citizens are becoming powerless against the influence of political power and businesses all too eager to use their capital to their advantage. For example, Kim Kyoung-hoon, the editor-in-chief of the Culture & Business Journal, argued this in reference to biocapitalism.

Last month, 16 April 2015, was the one year anniversary of the Sewol ferry tragedy claimed the lives of 304 people. South Korea has been overwhelmed with grief and many of them, including President Park Geun-hye, attributed the cause of the tragedy to a culture of neglecting safety measures. The short-termism and cozy relations between regulators and the private businesses which are rampant in Korean society were also denounced for leading to the development of this culture. The South Korean government has presented its will to eradicate the corruption so as to prevent the recurrence of accidents such as the Sewol ferry disaster.

Nevertheless, many large accidents have occurred over the last year since the ferry disaster. For examples, on 25 March 2015, a bridge at a construction site in Yongin-si collapsed and this led to 9 injuries. Earlier this year a fire in an apartment complex in Uijeongbu on 10 January 2015 left 4 people dead and 124 people injured. Experts said all these were human-made disasters, explaining that insensitivity towards safety caused these tragedies. Some people even called South Korea a republic of human-made disasters.


The apartment complex fire in Uijeongbu-si on 10 January 2015
(Source: The Hankyoreh)

On 16 April 2015, JTBC, a Korean broadcaster, aired a report on an analysis of the ten big disasters that occurred after the Sewol ferry disaster. According to the report, the underlying cause of the disasters is “money”. It revealed cause of the bridge collapse in Yongin-si to be the use of substandard construction materials in an effort by the contractor to cut costs.. JTBC visited other construction sites and observed workers not wearing safety helmets, among other issues, as safety equipment was not offered by the construction company. Kim Tae-bum, a branch manager of the construction workers union, said many constructors believe paying fines is better than spending money on safety equipment in terms of cost reduction.The JTBC report concluded that the fire in the apartment at Uijeongbu occurred for to two reasons. First, fireproof material was not used on the exterior of the building. Secondly, the emergency vehicle access routes were blocked due to a lack of parking spaces subsequent illegal parking by residents. Since the apartment was designed for lower-income families, the constructor tried to lower construction costs to the minimum, it added. Accordingly, driven by a focus on only short-term gains, a number of people did not follow safety measures, leading to a large accident.

Neglect of safety measures is easily found not only in such specific cases, but also in South Korean society as a whole. Visitors are often surprised by ‘always hurrying spirit’ that permeates life here, and this is indeed one of core features of modern Korean culture. However, many of both Koreans and foreigners would not know how people have established the culture.

A German sociologist, Ulrich Beck, said South Korea is a representative ‘risk society’. According to his conceptualization, South Korea achieved phenomenal economic and development at the expense of valuing human life and social safety. This eventually led to the tragedy that enjoying the fundamental human right of security of person is virtually impossible to the have-nots in South Korea.

One year has passed since the ferry disaster. Last month, on the one year anniversary of the Sewol ferry tragedy, almost all South Koreans were mourning for the victims and more than 5,000 people gathered in front of the Seoul city hall to remember the Sewol ferry and challenge the Guinness World Records for the largest torchlight image formed by people.

(Source: news1)

(Source: news1)

Regarding the Sewol ferry disaster, some people explicitly blamed the government for the tragedy and other people said the government appropriately dealt with the situation in many ways, including sentencing the captain of the ferry to life in prison. However, underlying problems that led to the ferry disaster are not resolved as they can be seen in the occurrence of several disasters after the ferry disaster. The Sewol ferry disaster is just one of expected human-made disasters in South Korea’s ramshackle and fast-paced society. Rather than placing all the blame for these disasters on the government, Korean society ought to heed the repeated warnings of the disasters and take the time to reflect and ask whether efficiency is really more important than creating a safety society. 

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