Much of the Sewol-disaster talk these days revolves around the notion that Korea needs to reckon with, and eliminate, its culture of cronyism and corruption, and it needs to develop a culture of safety and care: safety, because safety features so obviously aren't in place in so many aspects of daily existence; care, because as the accusation goes, Korea as a society seems not to evince much care for human life in general. While I take issue with one or more of these insights, I do think they're worth discussing.
There's a personal angle for me: my current hip problem has brought to stark relief the fact that Korea is not a handicap-friendly country. Granted, I was well aware of this state of affairs even before my hip started bothering me, but what was, previously, a distant piece of trivia to shrug at has now become an obstacle to human flourishing. St. Thomas Aquinas Hall, where I teach most of my classes, has no elevator, nor does it have a handicap-accessible ramp. (Strangely, the nearby cafeteria does, so a cripple can feed himself, but he can't expect to teach.) Many buildings on my campus, in fact, have no elevators, and it's not just my campus: the Hanyang University ERICA campus, in Ansan (the city most affected by the Sewol tragedy), also has buildings with no elevators, including ERICA's Practical English Education Center, where I went for what I had hoped would be an interview.
Come to think of it, my relatives' small apartment building in Karak-dong, in the southeast part of Seoul, also has no elevator. That building, owned by my mother's cousin and his wife, has only a set of stairs running up and down its interior. I used to live there for a brief spell, and I remember, one time, that the guy who brought me the used refrigerator I had bought had no choice but to put the fridge on his back and haul that thing up the stairs, all the way to my rooftop apartment on the fifth floor.
Cripples and the mentally ill are generally marginalized in South Korea, a culture that cleaves to conformism and shies away from difference and individuality. South Korea's image of itself doesn't include a warm embrace of diversity; you rarely see ads that feature a group of people with at least one wheelchair-bound person.* One notable exception to this ambient handicap-unfriendliness is Seoul's excellent subway system, which does a decent job, overall, of providing elevators, sliding staircase conveyors, wheelchair ramps, and wheelchair niches (inside the subway cars) for handicapped use (older subway lines could probably use some updating). Aside from that, though, a handicapped person is on his own. The best he can hope for is to find himself in a modern building with wheelchair-friendly facilities.
It boggles the mind to ponder how much it would cost for South Korea to revamp all of its old buildings, from the creakiest hovel on up, such that every single one could be handicap-accessible (and fire-escapable). Moving back to the Sewol tragedy, it's hard to imagine the cost of upgrading all safety features on every form of public transportation, plus the cost of safety training for the staffers who man and maintain such transportation, plus the cost of passing that training along to certain sectors of the traveling public (e.g., ferry passengers, who really should be schooled in emergency procedures in much the same way that airline passengers must undergo the standard safety lecture). All of this implies a major overhaul of a very visible aspect of everyday Korean life.
But deeper than the above measures is the issue of mindset: can Koreans, as a people, retrain themselves to put safety foremost in their minds? As much as I despise America's often-frivolous culture of litigation, there's something to the idea that companies will perform better if they're afraid of being sued. Korean culture isn't nearly as litigious as American culture is, but perhaps that's one way in which the peninsula should change. It's people who keep other people in line, after all.
Litigiousness (which can be viewed as a repudiation of fatalism—the "oh, well, there's nothing to be done" attitude) is only one way in which the society could change, and a minor one at that. There are more effective methods for reorienting the public's priorities. Going back to the Seoul subway system as an example: quite often, while I'm watching the monitors inside the subway cars, I'll see a safety video come on. The vid explains the procedure for opening the subway doors in an emergency; it also goes over the procedures for using a fire extinguisher and putting on a gas mask to prevent smoke inhalation. Such videos appear with no fanfare, but it's important to observe that they appear regularly and repeatedly—the hallmarks of inculcation in progress. That's how you create a culture of safety, a bit at a time. You keep hammering the message—gentle hammering, mind you—into the public's consciousness until it sinks in and becomes an assumed reality.
Korean society, like Japanese society, is growing steadily older, which means the demographic pressure will soon force Koreans to reckon with disability—mental instability, handicap, and so on—without being able to marginalize or ignore it. A culture of safety and care will likely have to emerge as a response to the needs of the old and infirm, and it may be that Koreans will see that that mindset can apply to more than just the old: a culture of safety and care would embrace high-school-aged ferry passengers, too.
*To be fair, this could also be true in America, where we still have our own awkwardness issues regarding the handicapped, the mentally ill, and the otherwise marginal.