[INSIGHT]More mature government neededA great wave of apprehension seems to be sweeping through our society. People are rushing to buy gold and dollars and many, reports say, are hurrying preparations to live or study abroad. There are even reports of a new interest in bulletproof vests, something that used to be rare in Korea.
The number of tourists has dropped and many foreigners are avoiding business trips to Korea.
Relatives and friends in the United States and Canada have called me in concern. “They say that Korea’s going to become dangerous around June. Are you all right?” some ask. “Why don’t you try to leave the country for awhile; maybe go to Japan,” others suggest.
Consumer confidence, investment and stocks have all been affected by the pervasive atmosphere of fear.
With such a big challenge facing our society, there are no signs of anyone doing anything about it. Obviously, the bigger share of the responsibility falls on the government to analyze the reasons behind all this nervousness and to present measures to deal with it. But the new government’s reactions have often been too hurried or too weak. Sometimes the government itself has been the cause of the worry.
If the people are rushing to buy dollars, shouldn’t the government release a comment to reassure the people and ask them to trust the government? Should the government not be making efforts to reassure the foreigners avoiding Korea that it is actually quite safe to visit Korea? A government that ignores the nervous state its people are in is not a responsible government.
CNN’s Seoul bureau chief Sohn Jie-Ae wrote in a newspaper recently that the international media does not reflect South Korea’s position on the North Korean issue well because the new government’s voice on the matter is too weak. As a result, she wrote, more articles are negative about South Korea than favorable.
In fact, the Roh government speaks of “no-tolerance” and “peaceful settlement” of North Korea’s nuclear issue but remains quiet about the methods to bring a peaceful settlement and what measures it would take if Pyeongyang refused to give up its nuclear program. Can the public trust a government with such an attitude? Even more, could a foreign government trust the South Korean government?
The incident in which a North Korean fighter jet approached within 15 meters of an American spy plane in international waters was a sobering event. We should have expressed our regret about the incident and urged North Korea to exercise more restraint. But our government’s first reaction was to urge the United States to restrain itself. Shortly after the incident, President Roh was interviewed by a British newspaper. That newspaper reported that the president said the incident had been “expected” and that the United States should not push things too far. The defense ministry’s protest to North Korea was only made five days after the incident. Would such government actions make people in and outside Korea feel safer or just the opposite?
In addition to North Korea’s nuclear program, the attitude of the South Korean government, with its frequent change of words and its impromptu announcements, is also contributing to the apprehension. One example is its decision on the special investigation into the allegations of a secret funding of North Korea. President Roh accepted the investigation in the end, but not before he changed his position several times. He went from calling for a “thorough examination” to “respecting the National Assembly’s decision” and then talked about “revision negotiations” causing more political confusion with each change of words.
The education minister made several flamboyant comments upon taking office only to hastily retract some of them later, and the authority of the minister of finance and economy was hurt when Mr. Roh turned down his decision to cut corporate taxes. The government first announced that the new head of the National Intelligence Service would be a bureaucrat, only to change its mind a short while later ― and then changed its mind again recently. The separation of the prosecutors’ office from the justice ministry was emphasized, but now the government has changed its tune to more “civilian control” and stricter oversight of investigations.
What is worse, the language of the government is crude. After the debate with the prosecutors, President Roh is reported to have said, “I’ve got a grip on the prosecutors now; their strategy was lousy and I owe my grip to that.” What does the fact that the president “has a grip” on the prosecutors imply? In his inauguration speech, the education minister, who also holds the post of deputy prime minister, said, “The Education Ministry is a place that takes its minister and turns him into a good-for-nothing.”
The secretary general of the government party, who stirred up controversy about outside pressure on the prosecution by making telephone calls to the prosecutors’ office concerning their investigation into a business, boasted, “It’s going to take a lot more than that to take me out.”
To put it simply, the level of discourse of the government is worrisome. The thought of the effect that discourse might have on younger generations is disconcerting. The constant changing of words and the crudeness of the language makes it difficult for the people to predict what the government will do next and in turn, to trust it. It is no wonder that society is nervous when no one knows whether government decisions today will change tomorrow.
These are hard times within and without the country. The people are nervous and optimism is drying up fast. These are times when it is especially important to reassure the public and boost morale. A more considerate, predictable and mature government is urgently needed here.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Song Chin-hyok