On Dec. 1, the country was hit with news of yet another disaster at sea. The 1,753-ton Oryong 501 carrying 60 crewmen went down in the western Bering Sea in bad weather. So far, seven have been rescued, 27 bodies have been recovered and 26 are still missing.
Even as the search and recovery operations are carried out by Russian and U.S. authorities and two Korean Naval maritime patrol aircraft, disturbing news of disregard for safety show us little has changed since the Sewol ferry sinking in April, in which more than 300 lives were lost.
Investigators said Monday that four of the 11 Korean crew, including the captain, did not have the required licenses for their positions as set out by law. In fact, the four were underqualified.
Maritime experts point to structural weakness of the vessel as a direct cause for the sinking of Oryong 501. While Sajo Industries, the ship’s owner, claims that the ship started listing as the drain in the storage hold became clogged, experts suggest that cracks or holes in the ship could have occurred earlier due to the age of the vessel. The trawler was built in Spain in 1978 and was bought by Sajo Industries in 2010.
Oryong 501 continued to work despite the strong winds and high waves forecast for the area. In fact, several other ships that had been working nearby had sought shelter against the rough weather. Why did the crew continue to work, knowingly putting themselves in harm’s way? Industry insiders say that the crew was probably working to meet its allotted fishing quota.
What could go down as the worst-ever Korean deep sea fishing accident is a reminder that the country still suffers from a serious lack of safety awareness. The fact that the ship’s owner, Sajo Industries, put to the waters a ship that was more than 35 years old, understaffing it and manning it with underqualified crew, shows the scant thought given to safety by the company. The fact that Oryong 501 continued to fish in the area where bad weather was predicted shows a cavalier attitude, even in the face of obvious danger.
The government’s response to the accident showed little improvement on its appalling performance during the Sewol ferry sinking. The Ministry of Public Safety and Security dispatched a patrol boat, a chopper, rescuers and investigators to the site on Dec. 5, four days after the accident. It will be several days before the team reaches the site.
On the first day of the accident, there was confusion in the administration as to which ministry was responsible, resulting in a waste of valuable time in responding quickly to the accident. A response team was set up at the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries three hours after the accident and five hours later a response team was set up within the Foreign Ministry as the Ministry of Public Safety and Security belatedly realized that accidents overseas were the responsibility of the foreign minister. In the meantime, the families did not know where to turn for information or assistance.
Little seems to have changed since the Sewol disaster when the government and the people vowed that things must change.