When I wrote the first part of this blog, I talked about domestic violence, police negligence, and other less publicized or hidden safety issues when traveling to Korea. I also spoke about how everyone’s experiences differ, and a more nuanced approach needs to be taken when we decide how safe a city or country is. When I finished my blog, I felt that something was missing. I couldn’t put my finger on why as someone who lives in Korea, I’m so cautious about feeding the stereotype that Korea is entirely safe.
In light of the Itaewon Tragedy, I can finally put into words some of the feelings that many people living in Korea and I have about safety.
The Itaewon tragedy is not the first time in more recent history that the Korean government has failed to keep the public safe. Please note that I will use ‘the Korean government’ as a blanket term for the federal, provincial, and local levels. This also includes the public safety offices that fall under their jurisdictions. In 1995 the Sampoong department store collapsed only five years after it had opened its doors, killing 509 people and injuring countless others. This was not a one-time event. Korea is still having issues with building safety, specifically during the building phase. Every year, there seem to be several deaths at construction sites from parts of the building collapsing. After several a year, this causes the government to close down construction for months across the country till each sight can be re-inspected. However, outside of inspections, there are few steps toward reform to prevent the problems that lead to these deaths.
Then more recently, in 2014, the Sewol Ferry sank on its way to Jeju from Incheon, killing 306 people, 250 of which were high school students. In this disaster, every level of safety response failed. In fact, this disaster prompted the development of a communication system that would allow emergency systems such as the coastguard, police, and fire to communicate efficiently. I understand this communication system is one of the many things that went wrong this past Halloween in Itaewon. The devices that are a part of this communication system, which were still in the testing phase, didn’t work. Which meant the police and the fire department couldn’t communicate with each other during every stage of the tragedy. When it comes to public safety, Korea is not safe.
Although tragedies can strike anytime without warning in any country, Korea always fails its people every step of the way. Public safety offices need more initiative and foresight regarding preventative measures. What seems like a standard safety practice in some countries is rare in Korea. What I see as a basic safety measure, like having police officers, fire departments, or EMTs at festivals, concerts, or public events, is missing here. Although it seems minor, I have seen older adults interrupt part of an event trying to get free food. When the staff explained that this was a pied part of the event and not free, the adults started getting physical with the staff member pushing them; this incident did not feel safe.
Another thing that many tragedies in Korea have in common is a slow in-the-moment response to active incidents. During a disaster, the police officers, coast guards, and fire departments on the ground are waiting hours for someone in charge to be contacted or to make a decision. Waiting for decisions from someone in charge plays into Korea’s dedication to hierarchy. A cultural difference, yes, but it consistently prevents the proper preventative measures from being taken. It also creates a poor in-moment response, making an already dangerous area even more dangerous. It was hours before the public was made aware of what happened in Itaewon. While public safety officers were trying to save victims, people continued to flock to Itaewon to party, unaware that the area was unsafe or people had lost their lives. In the case of the Sewol Ferry, it cost hundreds of lives.
Lastly, everyone wants to see someone punished and held accountable when tragedy happens. Although I believe in holding people accountable, justice does not coincide with systematic changes to protect the safety of the public in the future. True justice in public safety is never someone getting jail time or losing their job. Justice is making new laws, creating safeguards, and developing better processes to ensure the same mistakes are not made when the next tragedy strikes. To me, it feels like in Korea, everyone is so focused on finding someone to take a fall for a disaster that little is done to make the future safer for the public.
Yes, your average tourist will never have to worry about public safety measures. The average person in many countries usually goes their whole life being relatively safe in public spaces. However, labeling things as absolutely secure rather than relatively safe looking at the bigger picture of safety and what that means to each individual. Labeling some place as safe does not make victims of tragedy or crimes and their families feel any different about their experience.
Ultimately, these are my feelings and understanding of safety in Korea based on personal experience, listening to Koreans, and public reports/news. There are probably many Koreans who would disagree with me. My perspective is from someone who has grown up with different cultural expectations and different government regulations as to safety (which is undeniably flawed but still has good points). It is not for me or anyone to decide for another person, nor is it our job to sway someone one way or another on what ‘safe’ means. We should all be open to differences of opinion and, most importantly, experiences. Understand that whether or not someplace is labeled ‘safe,’ there are many nuances and factors for each individual regarding safety.
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