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Dearth of social capital

Dec 12,2017
The Pohang earthquake on Nov. 15 and the sinking a month later of a fishing boat in Yeongheung Island near Incheon exposed the backwardness of Korean society. The government responses have gotten more prompt than in previous administrations, but distrust and incompetence still prevail. I felt that it is still hard to trust this society.

As I did military service in Pohang, I was more interested in the Pohang earthquake than the one in Gyeongju. The earthquake that hit Pohang was a 5.4-magnitude quake, weaker than Gyeongju’s 5.8 quake, but it resulted in 16 times more displaced victims (1,797) and five times more property damage (55.1 billion won or $50 million).

The Pohang earthquake had a shallow epicenter and occurred in populous areas, but poorly constructed buildings also aggravated the damages. Members of the Korean Structural Engineers Association inspected an apartment complex damaged by the earthquake, and some of the buildings lacked necessary rebar. The columns in first-floor parking spaces were bent because of poor construction. Many people had lived in the buildings, believing they were safe.

After reviewing the fishing boat accident, I am not sure if the Coast Guard can be trusted. They did not have high-speed boats, so they approached the scene in a fishing boat.

The time and money spent on safety measures are needed not only when business contracts are drafted. The city of Busan is improving its earthquake-resistant verification process for building structures. The earthquake left many columns bent. When constructing rebar, videos will be recorded in the presence of a supervisor and then submitted.

It will cost money. The local government needs to invest more in maintenance and control, and so do building owners. Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Kim Young-choon is considering the introduction of fishing-only vessels, as well as reinforcing fishing-safety regulations. But the safety measures will cost time and money.

American political scientist Francis Fukuyama said in the mid-1990s that trust is one of the requirements for prosperity. A country whose community members have high expectations for each other to act honesty and cooperatively will thrive, he argued. He named the United States and Japan as countries with high expectations, and China and Korea as countries with low expectations.

The theory came in the 1990s, but not much has changed. The Korea Chamber of Commerce published “Study on Korea’s social capital accumulation and challenges” last year and stated that Korean trust, norms and social networks, the three social capitals, were among the lowest in the international community. Achieving a good per capita GDP is important, but without social capital, becoming a developed country is a distant goal.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 11, page 38

*The author is a deputy national news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.