South Koreans see lax safety beyond ferry sinking

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A huge banner hanging from the front of Seoul’s City Hall says “Sorry” for the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol near a group memorial altar in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, May 16, 2014. One month after the ferry sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing, there is a national debate — and spasms of shame and fury — over issues neglected as the country made its breakneck way from poverty, war and dictatorship to one of Asia’s top economic, diplomatic and cultural powers. The tragedy exposed regulatory failures that appear to have allowed the ferry Sewol to set off with far more cargo than it could safely carry. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

A huge banner hanging from the front of Seoul’s City Hall says “Sorry” for the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol near a group memorial altar in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, May 16, 2014. One month after the ferry sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing, there is a national debate — and spasms of shame and fury — over issues neglected as the country made its breakneck way from poverty, war and dictatorship to one of Asia’s top economic, diplomatic and cultural powers. The tragedy exposed regulatory failures that appear to have allowed the ferry Sewol to set off with far more cargo than it could safely carry. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

A worker mows grass near yellow ribbons for the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol at a group memorial altar in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, May 16, 2014. One month after the ferry sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing, there is a national debate — and spasms of shame and fury — over issues neglected as the country made its breakneck way from poverty, war and dictatorship to one of Asia’s top economic, diplomatic and cultural powers. The tragedy exposed regulatory failures that appear to have allowed the ferry Sewol to set off with far more cargo than it could safely carry. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

A man uses his mobile phone near yellow ribbons for the victims and missing passengers of the sunken ferry Sewol at a group memorial altar in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, May 16, 2014. One month after the ferry sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing, there is a national debate — and spasms of shame and fury — over issues neglected as the country made its breakneck way from poverty, war and dictatorship to one of Asia’s top economic, diplomatic and cultural powers. The tragedy exposed regulatory failures that appear to have allowed the ferry Sewol to set off with far more cargo than it could safely carry. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

South Korean rescue helicopters fly over a South Korean passenger ship, trying to rescue passengers from the ship in water off the southern coast in South Korea, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. The South Korean passenger ship carrying more than 470 people, including many high school students, is sinking off the country’s southern coast Wednesday after sending a distress call, officials said. There are no immediate reports of causalities. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT

South Korean Coast Guard officers search for missing passengers aboard a sunken ferry in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. Strong currents, rain and bad visibility hampered an increasingly anxious search Thursday for more than 280 passengers still missing a day after their ferry flipped onto its side and sank in cold waters off the southern coast of South Korea.(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — What does a sudden South Korean media obsession with cars parked next to fire hydrants, and construction workers neglecting to wear hard hats, have to do with the country’s worst disaster in years? It’s a sign of a nation that has been jolted into thinking about safety.

One month after the ferry sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing, there is a national debate — and spasms of shame and fury — over issues neglected as the country made its breakneck way from poverty, war and dictatorship to one of Asia’s top economic, diplomatic and cultural powers. The tragedy exposed regulatory failures that appear to have allowed the ferry Sewol to set off with far more cargo than it could safely carry.

Media are now scrambling to highlight safety transgressions that have been almost universally overlooked by Seoul’s 10 million residents.

“We’re good at cutting corners — incredibly good at it. It’s almost this sense that the one who finds the fastest way to get things done, that’s the hero,” said Hahm Chaibong, president of the Asan Institute think tank in Seoul and an expert on Confucianism. “People until now thought that cutting corners was profitable.”

Many South Koreans are proud of the local industrial titans that rival the best companies in the world in quality, skill and safety: Samsung, Korean Air, Hyundai. But the country also has a history of disregard for basic safety practices, including in the ferry industry.

The April 16 sinking of the Sewol is in some ways reminiscent of South Korea’s last major ferry disaster, a 1993 sinking that killed 292 people. An investigative report said government and shipping agency negligence allowed that ship to carry excessive passengers and cargo, which it said led to the sinking.

The report demanded that the government toughen regulations, but little was done. An inspector who examined the Sewol amid a redesign last year said the changes slashed the ship’s cargo capacity by more than half, but those new restrictions appear to have been ignored. Investigators are again looking at excessive cargo as a factor in a ferry sinking that killed hundreds.

Divers have recovered 284 bodies and continue to search for 20 other victims. All 15 surviving crew members responsible for navigation were indicted Thursday, four

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