A fire Saturday killed 10 people including eight Japanese tourists at an indoor shooting range in Busan, the nation's second largest city.
By tragic coincidence, on the same day, a gala ceremony was held in Seoul as a pre-celebration for the "Visit Korea Year" campaign for 2010 to 2012.
The two events display the conflict between high hopes and harsh reality. A high-powered cast including first lady Kim Yoon-ok was on hand to celebrate tourism here, but at the same time the most basic necessity of the industry ― safety ― was not even guaranteed. Some critics say that Korea needs to improve safety and other basic necessities rather than holding galas if it wants to draw 10 million tourists annually by 2012, the last year of the campaign.
The Korea Times closes with:
Japanese are one of the largest groups of foreign visitors. The Korea Tourism Organization expects the number of inbound Japanese travelers to reach three million by the end of the year, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the total visitors here.
To make Korea more attractive to foreigners, the government Friday unveiled a package of plans to draw 10 million visitors on an annual basis by 2012. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said in his opening speech: "With 75 percent of travelers visiting Seoul, how well Seoul does decides virtually all. I, as a head of Seoul, will do my best." The gala featured, among others, first lady Kim Yoon-ok, honorary chairwoman of the Visit Korea campaign; Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister Yu In-chon and Lee Byung-hun, the top actor starring in the current hit TV thriller, Iris. A number of boy bands and girl groups also performed at the event.
What's also bad for attracting foreign tourists is designing websites entirely in Korean, and using shitty English slogans like "Visit Korea Year: 2010-2012."
The story is all over the Korean news now, and Naver has a round-up of articles, though there's been little released in English thus far. The Korea Times has this excerpt,
Firefighters said the only exit was just 10 meters away from a room where seven people were found dead.
"It's unclear why the victims failed to find the way leading to the exit," a firefighter said at the scene. "Its structure is quite simple so it's not that difficult to find the exit."
while the Korea Herald writes:
Fire authorities had reportedly warned owners of the shooting range during a recent inspection of potential dangers because of the large amount of soundproof material at the facility that would produce heavy toxic fumes in case of fire.
And, as an update to the original post, I'll add Monday morning's Joongang Ilbo piece, which writes:
Japanese media were critical of the lax safety measures at the shooting range where the fire occurred. The Asahi Shimbun noted that opening an indoor shooting range in Korea requires strict standards for firearm safety and soundproofing, but that fire prevention tends to take a backseat.
The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the burned-down Busan range had no windows and only two exits. It quoted an Osaka man who had visited the range in the past as saying, “It was such a closed-off place that it would have been difficult to escape if there had been a fire.”
Some of the television news reports I've watched have brought up other similar fires, including this SBS report which mentions a 2006 fire in a basement shooting range in Seoul in which seven died. Reading what's written in the Herald reminds me immediately of the fire at the Yeosu immigration detention center (1, 2, 3); a Korea Times article quoted by Gusts of Popular Feeling says
[Firefighters] failed to put out the fire early because each detention room was blocked with iron bars to prevent detainees from fleeing. It is believed that the high number of deaths was due in large part to the detention center's floors, a fireman said. The floors, which were said to have contained urethane, emitted toxic gases when on fire.
Fire safety is frightening in Korea, and you may have noticed a couple weeks ago that part of Chonnam National University's measures against swine flu involve chaining all but the front door in the language center shut.
I mentioned in a post eighteen month ago the practice of chaining university dormitory doors shut at night, to which Sonagi replied:
It was true while I was in Korea. I taught at two universities in Seoul, and both chain-locked the doors at night.
and Brian Dear wrote:
I was at Soonchunhyang University in 2002-2003 and they chained the emergency exits there too. Of course, being uncooperative with curfews and being trapped in a potential firebox, I picked the padlock and simply used a dot of glue to hold the lock together so it looked locked. Sometimes, you have to take your own safety in your hands. Buy your own smoke detectors, etc. That fire-exit locking business is a major, major tragedy waiting to happen.
and gordsellar wrote:
I suppose the real issue is that no dorms have burnt down. A few prostitutes dying because of being chained inside a brothel (was that 2002? 2003?) didn't catch people's attention so much, but a dorm full of students, that might actually wake people up. Sad.
Deaths of prostitutes, brown people and English teachers in fires hasn't raised many eyebrows, but now that a group of Japanese tourists have died, perhaps this will be sufficiently bad for Korea's international brand to prompt some change. The television coverage at least suggests people are paying attention.