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After ferry disaster, a Katrina-like reckoning in South Korea

View Photo Gallery — South Korea mourns sunken Sewol ferry: What was once a rescue mission now appears increasingly like an operation to recover bodies, with hundreds still missing after a ferry sank off the southwestern coast of the Korean Peninsula on April 16 during a trip from the port city of Incheon to Jeju, a resort island.

SEOUL —South Korea has a history of disasters, from building collapses to airplane crashes. But the slow sinking of a passenger ferry this month has become its Katrina moment, a failed test of capability in a country obsessed with progress and success.

After decades of development, South Korea has approached Western living standards. And yet the capsizing of the Sewol — with 476 people on board — had the markings of a Third World calamity.

For South Koreans, the disaster has sparked not only mourning but also guilt, exposing what they see as deep-seated flaws in the country’s emergency preparedness. Some have cast the ferry sinking in more damning terms, saying South Korea has overlooked safety and regulations in focusing on its famously rapid economic growth.

“When we look at this disaster, it’s clearly man-made,” said Kim Geon-ju, a volunteer assisting relatives of ferry passengers. “I’m ashamed.”

The circumstances of the sinking make it particularly wrenching. Most of the deadliest maritime disasters have occurred in horrid weather or well off the coast. In this case, the seas were calm and the shore was relatively near. There also was an element of real-time agony. The ferry listed for more than an hour before it capsized, and even as it slipped deeper into the Yellow Sea, parents of the many teenagers on board felt that quick action could lead to the discovery of survivors.

Over the years, South Koreans have grown confident of their ability to do things competently. They have the world’s 15th-largest economy, they boast the largest smartphone manufacturer, Samsung, and the largest shipbuilding industry. The country is driven by a pressure-cooker education system that cranks out diligent, albeit stressed, students.

Since the end of the Korean War, South Korea has transformed itself perhaps more than any other country in the region, rising from economic ruin and successfully moving from military rule to democracy.

But in the aftermath of the Sewol disaster, newspaper editorials are arguing that the transformation is not as complete as has been thought. Some of the commentaries take aim at the country’s safety standards, but others probe deeper, searching — and perhaps over-reaching — to find blame in Korean society.

“Our nation has run headlong toward the goal of becoming wealthy for half a century,” read one, in the JoongAng Ilbo, a major daily. “But we turned a blind eye to the goal of being a civilized and safe society.”

As of Sunday, 187 people were confirmed dead and 115 were still missing. If no survivors are found, it will be South Korea’s deadliest ferry sinking since 1970, and its first major disaster since 2003, when an arsonist set fire to a subway station in the city of Daegu, killing nearly 200. It will also be the deadliest maritime accident ever sustained by a country belonging to the OECD, a group of wealthy, democratic nations. (South Korea joined in 1996.)

Prosecutors say the ferry — overloaded with cargo and top-heavy after renovations — listed and capsized after it took a sharper-than-recommended turn. But the factors that caused the ferry to sink do not fully explain why the accident happened and what caused it to be so deadly.

Maritime and disaster experts cite a pile-up of errors — each of which, by itself, might not have been significant. Inspection of the ferry was lax. Crew members appeared to have had little safety training. Passengers were told to stay put when the boat began to list. The captain and the crew were among the first to flee. After the ferry’s distress call, substantial help was slow to arrive. And immediately after the accident, South Korean agencies jockeyed for a role, with no clear control center delegating responsibilities.

On Tuesday, President Park ­Geun-hye apologized to the country for the government’s poor initial response to the disaster.

In the first days, attention focused on the captain and some members of the crew, whose actions in escaping a vessel with hundreds aboard were called “tantamount to murder” by Park.

But some experts and civic groups say the problems started well before the Sewol left for its 13½ hour journey from Incheon to Jeju. Korean media reported the Chonghaejin Marine Co., which operated the ferry, last year spent 60 million won ($58,000) for lobbying and entertainment — and just 514,000 won ($490) on safety training.

Moreover, South Korean ferries underwent what some politicians here say were cursory safety checks conducted by watchdogs with cozy ties to the shipping industry. The Sewol itself received good marks on a safety check in February.

After an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crash-landed last year in San Francisco, South Korea’s government asked for systematic safety checks on vessels in order to prevent large-scale accidents, according to documents obtained by a Seoul-based civic group. Four-person teams composed of police, maritime and other government officials checked the condition of 36 ferries. The average inspection took 13 minutes, according to the documents.

“We consider this as proof that there weren’t inspections on safety in a meaningful sense,” said Jun Jin-han, the manager for the Center for Freedom of Information, which obtained and shared the documents. “An accident like this was bound to happen. This was not just caused by mistakes of the captain or crew, but by a combination of mistakes at many levels.”

The families of the missing have reserved some of their greatest scorn for South Korean coast guard and other government officials, whom they say acted inefficiently and chaotically after the disaster. Divers — working in tough conditions — took almost four days to enter the submerged vessel and look for survivors.

In the first hours of the disaster, the Ministry of Security and Public Administration badly overstated the number of people who had been rescued from the vessel. One spokesman put the figure at 368; in reality, it was 174. The security ministry had inherited responsibility for some elements of disaster safety only this year, in a move that deemphasized the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).

Cho Won-cheol, who runs the Disaster Prevention and Safety Management Center at Yonsei University, said only two employees were transferred from NEMA to the security ministry at the time of the hand-off.

“They entered this disaster with no knowledge,” Cho said.

Some experts hope Korea will learn from the Sewol, investing more in emergency training for civil servants and beefing up watchdog groups. That didn’t happen after previous disasters in part because of a national mind-set — often described as “balli-balli,” or hurry-hurry — to move on quickly and focus on the future.

“Korea is unique, to a degree, in the sense that it experienced so many dramatic events — war, vast growth, a very quick democratic transition,” said Lee Chang-won, a professor of public administration at Hansung University in Seoul. “In all of this, regulations and rules have been looked over. The thinking is, is it worth stalling progress to deal with these regulations if there’s only a 1-in-10-million chance something goes wrong?”

Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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