On the importance of proper communication – Shortly after half past six this morning, the air raid sirens sounded in Seoul. A few minutes later, the loud, piercing alarm associated with an emergency warning message burst from both my and HJ’s phones. We looked at each other, and HJ said, “We must be at war.”
Mind you, she said this in much the same way that one might casually look out the window and say, “It looks like it’s going to rain today.” Just in case you were thinking today’s entry was going to be a bit of a thriller. At the time, my emotions were a mix of confusion (wondering what the heck was going on) and annoyance (does this mean I have to interrupt my morning exercises?). I took a look at the emergency message, which was issued by the Seoul Metropolitan Government: “Citizens, please prepare to evacuate, and please make sure that children and the elderly can evacuate first.”
“Well,” I said, “Looks like you have to prepare to evacuate, whatever that means. Apparently I’m good.” I am, after all, not a citizen of the Republic of Korea, but a resident alien. I was being facetious, of course—obviously the message was meant to apply to me as well, even if the government seems eternally incapable of taking into account the existence of non-citizens when communicating with the populace. But that didn’t make the message any more helpful. “Prepare to evacuate”? What exactly are we supposed to do? It doesn’t help that the operative Korean word here, daepi, can be understood both as “evacuate” or “take shelter” (it basically means “get out of harm’s way”). But that was all we got. No television channel to tune into for more information, no link to an official warning, etc.
I continued exercising as HJ began surfing the internet to figure out what was going on. It appeared that North Korea had launched another missile or rocket, but netizens at least did not seem to be too concerned. “Does this mean we don’t have to go to work?” one commenter asked on one news site HJ visited. Another commenter said that it was a false alarm, but we couldn’t find any information to confirm that—at least, not until a few minutes after seven o’clock (half an hour after the air raid sirens), when we got another emergency message, this time from the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, saying that the alert issued by the Seoul Metropolitan Government had been a false alarm (literally, “a mistaken issuance”). Then, at twenty-five past the hour—almost as if to confirm that nobody had any idea what they were doing—we got a final message from the Seoul Metropolitan Government: “Due to a North Korean missile launch, an emergency safety message was issued. We (now) inform you that the alert for all areas of Seoul has been lifted. Citizens, please return to your daily lives.”
That was the last we heard of it, and I did indeed continue my daily life—by that point I was drinking my morning cup of tea—although the incident was apparently very much talked about online. Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon maintains that it was not actually a false alarm, because North Korea did launch a missile and it did head south. The Ministry of Public Administration and Security apparently disagreed, though, and there is a discussion to be had about whether this was indeed a missile launch. The truth is that this was a scheduled—and previously announced—rocket launch intended to put a spy satellite into orbit, a mission that ultimately failed. South Korea (and the international community in general) refers to all such launches as “missile launches” because the rockets use the same technology as ICBMs, and missile tests are violations of UN resolutions. Thus the wording is more a political issue than anything else, but in terms of what it means for those of us on the ground, the lack of a distinction between missiles and rockets is not helpful.
At any rate, I’m writing this today not to comment on current events or ROK-DPRK relations, but to talk a little instead about the importance of proper communication. Set aside for a moment the fact that if North Korea actually does launch a missile or artillery attack on Seoul, no alert will likely be in time to make any real difference—if you’re in the line of fire, you’re probably going to be buried under the rumble by the time your phone makes that ear-piercing sound. But if a warning does happen to be in time, it’s not going to be very helpful if it doesn’t effectively communicate the necessary information. What we need to know in a situation like this is exactly what we should be doing at that moment. Maybe: “North Korean missile launch detected. Take shelter immediately in the nearest basement or underground structure. If you are driving, pull your car to the side of the road and take shelter immediately.” Or something like that. I don’t know—this isn’t my job. But this at least tells people exactly what they should be doing and why. (Note that you want to make sure that people who are driving don’t just panic and abandon their cars in the middle of the road, possibly blocking emergency vehicles from getting through.)
This isn’t the first time those in power have done a poor job of communicating in a crisis. You may remember the Sewol Ferry tragedy, back in 2014. I won’t go into detail about what caused the sinking (just google it and you’ll get more than enough information); for the purposes of today’s entry, the important point is that most—if not all—of the nearly three hundred people who died when the ship sank probably could have been saved had there been proper communication during the crisis. If you remember anything about the incident, you’ll remember that repeated announcements were made telling the passengers to stay put. Quite a big deal was made of this at the time, especially by foreign observers, arguing that the blind following of orders in Korean society was ultimately responsible for the deaths. I see it a little differently, though. People didn’t know what was going on, and in situations like that inertia often takes over—a body at rest tends to stay at rest. The only information you’re getting is that it is dangerous to move from where you are, so you default to the easy choice, which is to just continue doing what you were doing before. No doubt many of the people who died realized at some point that they needed to move, but by then it was too late.
Let’s come back to this morning. When we heard the air raid siren, our first instinct was not to grab some essentials and immediately evacuate our apartment. Our first instinct was to figure out what was going on. When the first emergency message arrived, rather than clarifying the situation, it only increased our confusion—so instead of taking action, we spent more time trying to figure out what was going on and what (if anything) we should do. I remember HJ wondering if we should prepare “go bags” or survival kits that we could just grab in an emergency; we did have a brief discussion about that, but that was for next time. We knew that we had already missed the window this time around; if something was going to happen to us it would have already happened.
It’s not just immediate crises that require clear communication—ongoing crises and emergencies require it as well. The best recent example of that is one that we’re all familiar with: the COVID pandemic. While Korea was praised early on for its handling of the pandemic, there was a lot of frustration with the lack of clarity in government communications. It wasn’t until about a year ago, for example, that the government clarified that you didn’t actually need to wear a mask outside as long as you could practice proper social distancing (e.g., you weren’t in a crowd, etc.). Perhaps as a result, you can still see people wearing masks outside even now, a year after that clarification. And I imagine that these people will continue to wear masks even after the COVID emergency officially ends in Korea tomorrow. That’s right—starting on the 1st of June, all masking, social distancing, and quarantine requirements will be dropped, with the exception that masks will still have to be worn in large hospitals (those with over fifty beds). You can read about it in the Korea Herald. I would link to the original page on the Ministry of Health and Welfare website, but at the moment their entire COVID-19 subdomain comes up as “Forbidden.” Yet another example of a lack of communication when it is most needed!
Perhaps for this reason—or maybe because the government just hasn’t done a good job of publicizing this in general—very few people I’ve spoken with are aware of this policy change. I was at the dentist last Friday, where I had to wear a mask for the first time in I don’t know how long. When the intern finished cleaning my teeth, I mentioned as I put my mask on again that we wouldn’t have to deal with this much longer. She was surprised, and when I told her about the policy change she confessed that she had not heard anything about it. The she added, “Oh, but I’m sure we’ll still have to wear masks here.” Then I explained the part about the fifty hospital beds. As a dentistry hospital, they don’t have beds, so technically the mask requirement shouldn’t apply, but the truth is that I have no idea how it will work in practice. Once again, proper communication is lacking.
So why am I up in arms about this now? I rarely write entries like this, generally because I don’t put out entries fast enough to comment meaningfully on current events. But what happened this morning annoyed me enough that I decided I would write about it (and also maybe get the word out about the end of the COVID-19 emergency here!). I am in the business of communication, after all. Granted, it is largely academic communication, but it is communication nonetheless. And everyone can benefit from being able to communicate better. Not that I expect this little rant of mine to make any real difference, of course. It’s just something that I felt unusually passionate about and wanted to share.