Oct 13, 2014

Corruption and the Sinking Korean Ship by Tom Coyner

Will this sordid saga ever end? The entire nation - and much of the world - has been focused on Korea’s corrupt maritime industry and its sleazy connections throughout society. What mesmerizes everyone is that yet another scandal is revealed almost daily, and another part of society is exposed. More people - both of high and humble stations in life - are discovered to be, at best, incompetent or, at worst, criminal.

 As a result, a palpable sense of depression can be widely felt. There is also a kind of denial. The terms “rescue,” “survivors” and other euphemisms are routinely brandished when it clearly would be more accurate to use “recovery,” “victims,” etc. To say that these word choices reflect our tender feelings toward families of the school children is inadequate.

There also is a real dread at facing up to the actual problems of society. Even more worrisome are the traditional knee-jerk reactions following this and past tragedies. Government officials, politicians and business leaders express sorrow, outrage and determination to put remedial changes into effect. And then the nation goes back to business as usual until the next riveting horror. Often, Korea seems to set its domestic priorities by the current tragedy. Having first come to Korea as a Peace Corps Volunteer and later worked in industrial safety in California, it struck me in the face of all of this grief that the nation has the capacity to break out of this vicious cycle of neglect and corruption if it is willing to try something new.

There is precedent in other success stories such as the New Village Movement and KOICA. I suggest establishing a Safety Corps, working alongside a national safety ministry, that would be comprised of both young college graduates and recently retired managers and executives. The “Anjeon Bongsa-dan” is entirely feasible given that South Korea is the only recipient nation of the U.S. Peace Corps to later establish its own overseas service volunteer organization, KOICA. Like KOICA, the Safety Corps would be open to qualified citizen volunteers and act as a national service alternative to military service for young men.

Today, many young men with superior educations are exempt from military service while working for the minimum wage in strategic sectors. Many of these jobs are not genuinely strategic, but it does make sense to try to better employ the men than have them carry rifles for as long as two years. Even more beneficial may be for these same bright young men to circulate in industry with female counterparts and experienced business and engineering elders, studying and educating the rest of society on industrial and other forms of safety, while being paid minimum compensation. The current problem is not so much too many regulations or too few, but under-enforcement and implementation of safety programs, as well as an inadequate understanding of the real benefits of safety training.
When I was responsible for industrial safety at a manufacturing plant, I discovered that safety is part and parcel of quality.

And like quality in products and services, properly-implemented safety measures more than pay for themselves in reduced injuries and improved operational efficiencies. The suggested primary mission of the Safety Corps would be to study and educate volunteers assigned to industry organizations on mandated safety programs and procedures. Most operations are “too busy” to adequately become acquainted with many safety regulations and too many do not carry out adequate safety training of employees. The Safety Corps would assume this responsibility to inspect and train organizations on all relevant forms of safety.

The corps would combine the idealism of young people with the tempered experience of recently-retired professionals. In doing so, the corps would repeatedly visit troubled operations. Should unsafe operators be unwilling to take adequate remedial action, it would be the corps’ civic and moral responsibility to report such transgressions to the Prosecutor’s Office. Nonetheless, the corps’ primary and overwhelming duty would be training - not inspection.

Also, by being a neutral organization between bureaucracies and industry, it could serve as a sounding board for noting contradictory and inappropriate regulations. The benefits of the Safety Corps would be immediate: concretely establishing safety as a real and ongoing national concern.

The corps would offer meaningful internships for many unemployed university graduates. Young volunteers would eventually move on in their careers into government and private industry with real-world exposure to the challenges of running safe and efficient operations.

Recently-retired managers also would be able to contribute their wisdom and practical experience to the rest of society while being reenergized by working closely with youth. The expected push-back from industry would be that it couldn’t afford intervention by a Safety Corps.

But by now, the rebuttal should be obvious. When the de facto industry standards consist of shortcuts and corruption, it takes just one major accident to deliver an entire industry a serious body blow. In other words, while the short-term benefits may not always be apparent, it is clear that present behaviors need to come to an end. A positive, ongoing intervention by a volunteer Safety Corps could be part of the overall solution.

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by Tom Coyner. Senior Commercial Advisor for IPG & President of Softlanding Korea