Pitiless corruption and national shame

The Seoul department store disaster reminds us how the West continues to misunderstand South Korea; The Sampoong store, built six years ago, belongs to the post-Olympic era
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The Independent Online
After the five-storey Sampoong department store collapsed in Seoul last week, killing perhaps as many as 200 people and injuring 1,000 more, a bystander was quoted as saying: "This embarrasses us in front of the whole world." Actually, I bet that what he said in Korean was closer to: "This shames us in front of the whole world." It is a reaction one would hardly expect to find in Britain, but one which belongs naturally in several of the cultures of the East, where shame is said to play a role as profound as the notion of guilt in the West.

The Korean bystander looks at the wreck of the store. He knows there has been no earthquake, no bomb attack, and that even if there had been a gas explosion it should never have caused such complete destruction of the building. So the next theory comes pat. This place was not properly built. Corruption and greed must be to blame. And it is this which makes him feel that his country has been shamed in front of the whole world.

Western broadcasts have put their own gloss on events, suggesting that accidents of this kind are the by-products of South Korea's rush to industrialise, that this cutting of corners is the downside of the economic miracle. But this explanation seems to be decades out of date. Can you imagine, for instance, buying a South Korean car and finding that the wheels fell off because, in their "rush to industrialise" and undercut world competitors, the manufacturers had failed to tighten the bolts? South Korean engineering is expected to be compete in the world at international standards, and there is no reason at all why the engineering of buildings for the domestic market should be any different.

In fact there has been every incentive (earthquakes apart) for the architects of Seoul to build with extra care for stability, considering that ever since the Korean War the city has been theoretically under threat of an attack, and considering that buildings such as department stores tend to have a subsidiary military role or to be part of a provisional defensive ensemble.

If the Lotte - another prestige department store in Seoul - has an anti- aircraft battery on its roof, then it is surely worthwhile making certain that the store itself will not collapse of its own accord. The city planners of Seoul created, in the Seventies and Eighties (when the "rush to industrialise" gave way to the fact of having become a major industrial power), a coherent system of underground communications with which the great commercial structures, the hotels and department stores, were closely linked. The aim was to create a defensible city, and one to be proud of (which meant one that, in the course of time, could hold its own against Japan). The Sampoong store, built six years ago, belongs to the post-Olympic era. If it is true that its foundations were not strong enough for the former infill site, then the problem is quite distinct from that of the pace of industrial development. The problem is corruption.

And the shame that the bystander felt, that sense of his country having been disgraced in the eyes of the world, would only be compounded by the stories that the management had been warned about construction faults, that ceilings had been cracking earlier in the day, and that the company executives (four of whom are under arrest and now to be charged with criminal negligence) had left the store without raising the alarm. The corrupt are not just greedy - they are pitiless.

It has often suited commentators on the Far East to take this pitilessness as a fact of life. A country is doomed to authoritarianism because that is "in the culture"; to corruption because - well, have you ever known the East to be without it? One is shown the success stories - Singapore, Japan, South Korea - and there hovers over them the implication: this is the only way it can be done, this is the only way to achieve progress.

So for many years strong military government in South Korea was deemed to be a necessary concomitant of a strong economy. The generals and the tycoons were part of the same deal. They were in control. Any criticism was Communism.

But then a drama began to unfold within the business community itself, and within the intelligentsia, which saw the military as a bar to economic progress, and which viewed democracy as an essential part of modern life. Corporate corruption was not the oil which kept the whole economic machine running smoothly. It was a sign of the dysfunction of the machine. Corruption is costly. It is a form of inefficiency.

And so the fight for democracy in South Korea had an element both of a fight against corruption by people of a democratic spirit, and a fight by business itself to rid itself of an obligation to the military and to the ruling party. The battle proceeded by fits and starts, and included great assaults on corporate corruption.

Corruption is pitiless. Corruption is inefficient. In the case of the Sampoong store, it may prove 100 per cent inefficient, or worse. The founder of the firm and his son, the current president, are among those arrested. The 1,000 injured and the relatives of the 200 or more dead, not to mention the police, will no doubt have claims to press. The building was inspected in March. Was the inspector deceived, or negligent, or was he bribed?

Whatever the answer, it seems unlikely that much will be left of Sampoong by the time the case has been settled. Nor will the lesson be lost on the South Korean public. But how long it takes to extirpate corruption from a culture, how long it takes to clear up the legacy of the police state - these are questions which are yet to be answered.

My belief is that, of all the countries in the Far East, South Korea has been paramount in its ability to transform itself and escape the constraints of the past. Often, the steps along this journey have been marked by bloody incidents - the Rangoon bomb, the massacre of Kwangju, the riots in Seoul - but that does not mean that life in South Korea simply passes in a tragic, meaningless blur. The significance of a catastrophe like that of last Thursday is lost on none of the spectators. If it is seen as a matter of national shame, that perception alone will be enough to ensure a stern response.