South Korea is disbanding and reforming its Coast Guard. The current 10,000 Coast Guard personnel will have to go through a “rehiring” process to get jobs in the new Maritime Safety Agency (which will get most of the current Coast Guards 220 ships and 25 aircraft) and maritime safety sections in the national police. Inspection of ships and crews will be handed to another agency.
The cause of all this was an April 16th incident where an overloaded ferry sank and over 300 people, most of the high school students, died. The investigation found that the ferry owner, and many others who depended on Coast Guard safety inspections, had simply bribed Coast Guard officials to ignore overloading and the hiring of unqualified officers and crews for ships. The ferry disaster was notable for the captain and crew of the ferry fleeing the sinking ship rather than attending to the safety of passengers on board. As a result over 60 percent of the nearly 500 passengers on board died.
This corruption was no secret but like many other corrupt practices it was ignored until it produced a large enough tragedy. Those we normally think of as the coast guard (the crews of rescue ships and aircraft) have always done their job, but the culture of corruption so common in East Asia did get to those in charge of safety inspections for commercial ships. Many shipping companies felt they could operate more profitably and just as safely if they could get safety inspectors to overlook certain aspects of ship design and operation. Thus a ferry that was poorly designed in the first place and became unstable if overloaded was passed as safe due to bribes. The public outrage exposed the fact that many senior coast guard commanders and officials had to, or should have, known about the corruption and did nothing. So most of the lower ranking coast guard personnel will be back but a lot of senior and middle management will be gone. Will this make any real difference? Time will tell.