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The Peninsula

Testing the Strength and Weakness of Korea’s Disaster Response System

Published April 18, 2019
Author: Yong Kwon
Category: South Korea

By Yong Kwon

Earlier this month, a wildfire burned over 1300 acres of forest, farmland, and homes in northeastern Gangwon province. Seasonal winds helped spread the fire and a bigger crisis appears to have been averted by the government’s rapid deployment of personnel and resources. Simultaneously, the response also revealed serious vulnerabilities in Korea’s disaster preparedness. As climate change raises the risk of fires going forward, how the Korean government improves its emergency response will serve as a gauge for state capacity under the Moon administration.

This is not the first time that Gangwon province confronted wildfires. Seasonal gusts that travel along the coastline of the East Sea are prone to picking up any small spark and starting fires. It also does not help that pines make up 22% of the trees in Gangwon province, which are more flammable than other plant species. In 2000, nearly 58,000 acres of forest were lost after a devastating forest fire. With the Korean Peninsula becoming warmer, evidenced by recent droughts, these wildfires may occur more frequently.

Consistent investment in firefighters, stemming from the previous administration’s allocation of proceeds from cigarette tax to disaster preparedness, undoubtedly contributed to enhancing the speed and effectiveness of the response to this year’s fire. However, more resources could have been dedicated to both personnel and hardware.

Of the 10,000 people deployed to fight the fire, the most dangerous task went to “special units” that were deployed to areas where fire trucks could not reach. Investigative journalists discovered that many of these special firefighters were in fact irregular employees with wages that are around $100 a day with 6-month contracts.

There were also equipment shortcomings. South Korea has a fleet of approximately 160 helicopters capable of fighting wildfires, but only a fraction of them were able to take off in the seasonal gusts, which often exceeded 60 feet/second. Even fewer could take on missions at night under these conditions. This seriously hampered the firefighting efforts.

There were also deficiencies in the alert system. Many elderly residents were not made aware of the televised alert because they had gone to bed early. In some rural areas, local sirens were not loud enough to alert residents. Meanwhile, major domestic television networks KBS, MBC, and SBS failed to provide sign language interpretation for the emergency broadcast when the fire first began, delaying the evacuation of differently abled citizens.

Taking into account these shortcomings, the human cost was arguably low (1 dead and 10 injured). To ensure that lives are not left to chance in the next unexpected crisis, the government is rightly bolstering state capacity in disaster response.

The government has already promised to dedicate more resources to regularize and increase personnel in the special unit of firefighters. In the short term, administrators can pull resources from the supplemental budget that will be introduced to the National Assembly later this month. Long-term funding solutions that go beyond the cigarette tax will need to be developed.

In addition, the Korean government is considering replanting the devastated mountain sides with trees with lower resin output to deter the spread of future fires. More personnel will also be dedicated to track and assist with the evacuation of the elderly and the differently-abled.

And as other parts of the world also struggle to cope with the effects of climate change, the Korean government may also invest resources to research best practices from other countries.

How quickly the government is able to adopt these changes and effectively deploy these news assets in future fires will be a good representation of state capacity under the Moon administration. In fact, it could be a very respectable legacy for the president.

Yong Kwon is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from JLS Photography – Alaska’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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