[OUTLOOK]Time for stick, not more carrotsLet’s say that a person commits a wrong. People make different assumptions about why he did so. Some say, “He was always aggressive,” and, “That’s true and he was also insecure.” Others say “I was told he was strapped for money lately,” or, “He wouldn’t have done that if he only had a friend to talk to.”
Many researchers believe that Asians and Westerners view such things differently and have conducted studies on that difference.
Psychologist Lee Ross coined a term, “fundamental attribution error,” in a paper he wrote. According to his theory, both dispositional and situational explanations can be made for behavior. The question is which is considered more important.
Mr. Ross’ fundamental attribution error refers to the tendency to emphasize dispositional reasons over situational explanations. The outline of his theory is that Westerners make this error more often than Asians.
In the early and mid-1990s, the North’s nuclear issue surfaced and international society had a fierce debate on how to respond. The United States considered a surgical strike on the North’s nuclear infrastructure. That suggestion was made by the Clinton administration, although it now criticizes the failure of the Bush administration’s hard-line policy on North Korea.
In Western ethics, which traces its roots to Aristotle, a person who does wrong is a bad person. Whether right or wrong, this belief is very natural for Westerners so it cannot be easily changed. That is totally different from Asian thinking, where we hate the wrongdoing but do not hate the wrongdoer.
The Clinton administration wanted to strike the North and the Bush administration calls North Korea a “rogue state,” part of an “axis of evil” and a “tyranny” and its leader a “pygmy.” Both take a similar approach to the problem.
But Asian countries argued that as the North is having a hard time, international society could help the North and make sure the communist country would not toy with nuclear weapons. That argument was accepted.
This tactic was worth trying, looking at the situation back then. This is how it went from the first North Korea’s nuclear crisis until last year’s Sept. 19 agreement at the six-party talks in Beijing.
But things did not go as expected. On Monday, an article in a news magazine written by a military research institute of China’s Liberation Army stated that “North Korea revised its Constitution in 1998 to establish a military-first policy. Implementing the military-first policy, the regime concentrated its limited resources on its military, although the country’s economy was extremely bad. The North has been developing nuclear arms, regardless of the risk of ruining the country.
International society wanted to resolve the problem without making fundamental attribution errors but the situation was too serious to be solved in that way. However, this logic is still widespread among some South Korean political leaders. They argue, “This was expected so there is no reason to panic or get upset,” or, “The North’s nuclear bomb and missiles were not aimed at South Korea.”
In psychology, the error of taking a shocking event as a natural event is called hindsight bias. Researchers have found that Asians make this error a lot more often than Westerners do. South Korea’s government officials and progressive civic group members are saying, “I knew it would happen.” Do they mean that they knew the North would never give up its nuclear development program but they still gave it billions of dollars?
As North Korea chose to conduct its nuclear test despite numerous warnings, we need to make up our minds without hesitation. The North Korean regime developed nuclear devices, risking the collapse of its economy. We should not think about offering carrots again, thinking, “It must have been in a really difficult situation,” or, “We hate its behavior but not its people.” Warnings have power only when they are carried out and empty words only make the other party more daring and reckless.
* The writer is the chief of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Tae-wook