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Another Accident Suggests Public Safety Shortcomings

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • On Lunar New Year’s Day, six people died when a faulty gas pipe exploded at a vacation rental home in Gangwon Province.
  • Subsequent investigation revealed that the facility had been operating illegally and that the faulty gas pipe had also been installed illegally.
  • The local government had promoted this vacation rental facility on its official website as part of its effort to grow tourism traffic to the province.

Implications: Despite increased emphasis on public safety from the central government, the inconsistent enforcement of regulations continue to create vulnerabilities. The Gangwon provincial government was prompted to engage in safety checks at lodging facilities after a similar gas explosion two years ago. However, regulators were unable to inspect rental vacation homes that were illegally listed as multi-dwelling homes. As a result of rigid regulatory interpretations, lodging facilities that potentially posed the greatest threat to the public were left out from routine inspections. This occurred even when the government had information that proved that these facilities were operating illegally. This case suggests that Korean regulators may be weighed down by bureaucratic rigidities and poor inter-agency coordination, creating obstacles for the consistent enforcement of safety regulations.

Context: The 2014 Sewol accident is the most notable example of a recent public safety failure. Laws were in place to restrict the dangerous practice of loading cargo above the regulated level. However, official inspectors failed to verify the specifications of the vessel Sewol after it was remodeled. This negligence led to the maritime accident that killed 304 ferry passengers. The disaster had major political ramifications as the Park Geun-hye administration was scrutinized for both shortcomings in preventative regulations and its poor handling of the disaster response. The recent resort accident shows that ensuring public safety remains a persistent public policy challenge in South Korea.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

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