August 29, 2014 7:00 pm JST

Sinkholes in Seoul keep nation focused on safety-efficiency equation

SEOUL -- A series of road collapses in South Korea this summer has raised further questions about safety in a country still reeling from the deadly Sewol ferry disaster in April. Some say the nation's economic development rush came at the price of proper planning and engineering. The government is now scurrying to restore public confidence, sometimes with inconvenient side effects.

     At about 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 22, a sinkhole opened in the middle of an eight-lane road that cuts through Seoul from east to west. The hole was about 1.5 meters across and nearly 1-meter deep; it pulled in a minivan from its left front wheel.   

     "It stopped all of a sudden," said the driver of the car behind the van.  

     It was the sixth confirmed case of a road collapse in Seoul this summer. "Subway construction may have been poorly done," said Lee Soo-gon, a civil engineering professor at the University of Seoul. "The government may deserve blame for carrying out underground development projects without doing sufficient geological research."

     Since the 1970s, South Korea has achieved what many call an economic miracle. But there is a case to be made that efficiency has trumped safety -- and that this mindset has become deeply ingrained.

     The sinking of the Sewol was widely seen as evidence of this. More than 300 people, many of them high school students, were killed or remain missing. The accident spurred controversy over shoddy safety management, including negligence concerning the ferry's cargo load, and sent shock waves through the South Korean public.

Transport troubles

Safety is now a hot topic at all levels of society. But the problem runs deep, and solutions can have complications.

     On the morning of July 16, a new government policy created chaos on bus routes serving Seoul's suburbs. The administration had decided to ban passengers from standing while riding express buses, which take highways into the city center. The result: long lines of frustrated passengers at a number of stops.

     The government received a barrage of complaints and eventually dropped the ban.

     "I have never heard of accidents" as a result of passengers standing, said a 36-year-old office worker who commutes about 40 minutes each way. "It shouldn't be a problem."

     Bus operators could theoretically offer seats to all passengers if they added more services, but that would entail higher costs.

     On Aug. 8, prosecutors announced corruption charges against 16 researchers and staffers of the government-affiliated Korea Railroad Research Institute, a railway inspection body. The prosecutors allege the individuals accepted bribes from manufacturers and illegally issued certificates for railway brake parts that were not up to safety standards.

     South Korean President Park Geun-hye suggests the responsibility for improving safety does not lie with the government and businesses alone. "To create a safer South Korea, we must have the participation of the people," Park told a government meeting Tuesday.

     Still, it is up to the government to take the lead, and it has been slow to act.

     After the ferry tragedy, Park declared plans to dismantle the coast guard, as it had failed to rescue the passengers. She also pledged a safety management overhaul. Yet months have passed, and the government reorganization bill has yet to be hammered out in parliament.

(Nikkei)

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