[Viewpoint] At least TV shows have directorsJapanese broadcaster TBS will air the Korean TV drama “Iris” from April 21. The series, which was hugely popular in Korea last year, will air in prime time, at 9 p.m. on Wednesday nights. It’s already a hit; posters featuring characters from Iris are plastered all over Tokyo’s streets and train stations.
Recently, I was talking about the drama with Japanese journalists who served as correspondents in Seoul, and the conversation suddenly moved to the sinking of the South Korean Navy ship Cheonan.
One Japanese reporter said, “Considering what’s been found so far, a North Korean torpedo attack seems the most probable. But for some reason, the Blue House is downplaying the possibility.
“Does Seoul have some kind of communication with Pyongyang? If it were a North Korean attack, it’s likely that the hard-line military circle in North Korea organized it without Kim Jong-il’s involvement, with the intention of disrupting the inter-Korean summit meeting that is under discussion. If that’s the case, Pyongyang might have sent a message to Seoul. Doesn’t such a scenario sound like a plot from Iris?”
The hypothesis is completely groundless, and I was quite angry. But my colleague’s reasoning was obvious. The South Korean government’s response to the incident was so inattentive and immature that I had to listen to such an absurd story in Japan.
After the catastrophe, the military and the government failed to accurately provide any basic information, even the time of the sinking. Who would trust the authorities after that?
The government then elaborated on how Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities were analyzing North Korean submarine bases and revealed the location of blind spots where a North Korean semi-submersible would not be detected. The information came directly from the minister of defense, in testimony at a special session of the National Assembly.
Such remarks were unbelievably imprudent, as the information would obviously reach intelligence agencies of the North.
The sinking of the patrol ship Cheonan reminded all of us how Korea lacks crisis-management ability, leadership and an emergency-response system.
First of all, we did not have leadership. At the very least, President Lee Myung-bak should have come on live television and presented a determined and clear message.
He should have explained what really happened; what possible causes were being investigated; how long it would take for the exact cause to be determined; and what the follow-up measures would be when a conclusion was reached.
Also, he should have promised to keep the citizens informed about the tragic incident as soon as new information became available. Instead of brushing off doubts by saying there is “little evidence of North Korea’s involvement” or “there is no secret,” he should have left no room for conspiracy theories. That’s the job of a leader.
When there is no leadership in place, there should at least be a working system. But we did not have that, either. The government showed how chaotic and inconsistent it can be. The Blue House, the Ministry of Defense and the citizens all acted in accordance with their own agendas.
In a word, there was no clear direction or unity when it came time to deal with a crisis.
Let’s look back at two foreign examples.
When a Japanese freighter collided with the American nuclear submarine U.S.S. George Washington near Kagoshima Prefecture in 1981 and when the Ehime Maru, a Japanese high-school fishing training vessel, collided with the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Greenville in 2001, Japan went through some “human” problems indeed. Its prime minister was playing golf at the time of the accidents.
However, it took only a few hours from the time the accidents were first reported and their causes estimated before the government announced how it would respond to the emergency. The system worked even when the leadership was shaky. There were few, if any, speculative reports in the media.
We should not be content to be ahead of Japan in just a few industries. The strength of a country is cumulative.
The Republic of Korea is not yet at peace, but merely in a truce with its northern counterpart.
We should prepare a better emergency management system. Until then, there will be little we can say - even when foreigners ridiculously compare our national disaster to the plot of a television show.
*The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
By Kim Hyun-ki