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[Editorial] Far from safe

Nation needs to raise public safety standards

Recent incidents involving land subsidence and mass food poisoning at schools highlight Korea’s poor public safety standards.

We never seem to learn from past disasters caused by a combination of low public safety awareness, the blind pursuit of money, lax regulations and a lack of responsibility on the part of authorities.

Some major incidents in the past have involved children and young students, such as the sinking of the Sewol ferry four years ago.

In light of the circumstances, people reacted sensitively to the near-collapse of a kindergarten building in Sangdo-dong, southern Seoul, last week. The three-story building tilted severely on Thursday night when ground below it gave way. Authorities investigating the cause said that recent heavy rainfall might have loosened up a retaining wall set up by the builder of a nearby multi-household residential building.

What is upsetting is that the incident could have been prevented, as there had been signs of problems. In March, one month before construction of the residential building started, a civil engineering professor, who conducted a geological survey of the area at the request of the kindergarten, cautioned that the area had weak bedrock. However, the warning went unheeded.

Concerned about the safety of the building, the owner of the preschool hired a safety consulting firm, which found cracks in the retaining wall and the walls and floor of the kindergarten last month. That should have led to the temporary shutdown of the facility.

But neither the kindergarten nor the local education office closed the facility, though the local office ordered the construction firm to reinforce the retaining wall.

On the eve of the incident, the kindergarten found that there were more cracks and the building had started leaning.

It alerted the local ward office through a document, but the office did not even send anyone to a meeting convened at the request of the kindergarten, which was attended by staff of the construction firm, the local education office and the safety check consultant.

The local ward office therefore cannot avoid blame for ignoring a problem that put about 120 children in danger. There should be a criminal investigation to hold accountable those who neglected their duties.

Tough legal action is necessary because similar incidents have occurred. On Aug. 31, a large sinkhole opened on a road between an apartment complex in Gasan-dong, southern Seoul, and a construction site for a 30-story building. Recent heavy rain is believed to have weakened the retaining wall and the ground here, too.

Such incidents could have been avoided. Both the Sangdo-dong and Gasan-dong incidents are the result of a lack of safety awareness on the part of builders and lax supervision by relevant authorities.

Similar problems are prevalent in other areas of society, as seen in a recent massive food poisoning case. More than 2,000 students were hit by food poisoning after eating chocolate cakes contaminated with salmonella.

The cakes that were supplied to more than 170 schools in various parts of country were produced by a food maker that received government certification for food safety called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points. This raises questions about how the authorities manage the certification system.

Whenever a safety mishap occurs, there is fierce public outcry, followed by a government apology and a pledge to prevent recurrences.

Remember what we witnessed after the Sewol ferry disaster, which claimed the lives of 304 people, with many of them high school students.

We have yet to fix all the problems that contributed to the disaster: the ship company’s ignorance of safety rules, the blind pursuit of monetary gains, lax safety rules and irresponsible, incapable and corrupt officials. We never learn.