O Captain! My Captain!President Lee Myung-bak yesterday arrived at the disaster site where the 1,200-ton patrol ship Cheonan exploded and sank with nearly half of its 104 crewmen onboard. This is the first time a president has ventured to Baengnyeong Island, just within short fire range of North Korea. His trip to the Korean sea border reflects the gravity of the situation.
The accident - a mysterious explosion that ripped the warship apart Friday night - will likely have serious repercussions regardless of the exact cause. If North Korea is behind it, the government has to make a critical decision. If the blast was caused by fault onboard, the military will have to answer serious questions on its competence.
Our country right now is like a ship staring at an abyss. At urgent times like this, a captain’s leadership is crucial to maintain calm among the crew and passengers onboard.
A cool head, determination and the ability to communicate clearly with the people are absolutely necessary, as history shows us.
In October 1962, U.S. military intelligence discovered evidence of the Soviet and Cuban governments building missile bases in Cuba. As a Soviet vessel carrying the weapons neared Cuba, U.S. President John F. Kennedy appeared before the public with photos proving this transport. As a result, the Americans and Soviets met secretly several times, and the Soviets dismantled the missiles and pulled out in the end.
Here on the Korean Peninsula on Aug. 18, 1976, North Korean soldiers attacked and killed two U.S. Army officers as they trimmed a tree blocking visibility in the demilitarized zone. President Park Chung Hee made a strong warning that the Korea-U.S. forces would immediately counteract another provocation and, in a show of force, ordered the tree chopped down.
In this latest incident, President Lee convened four emergency security meetings after the explosion on the Cheonan. He ordered full engagement in the rescue campaign for the missing sailors while commanding military and government officials to keep alert for a possible emergency posed by North Korea. He wasn’t wrong, but he did show he is out of touch.
The president now has both the public’s trust and doubt. The president, prime minister and key government officials have not served in the military and their competence in times of crisis has not been tested. The president should be aware of public anxiety and display resolute leadership dealing with this disaster.
A ship’s crew and passengers will follow their captain if he demonstrates assurance, determination and communication. A crisis could turn into an opportunity to reinforce public connection and unity.