[Viewpoint] Consider the source

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[Viewpoint] Consider the source

A handful of problems have arisen since the Navy corvette Cheonan sank on March 26.

In particular, our government’s response to the crisis and its behavior in the aftermath have been troubling.

The first sign that something was not right came right after news of the tragedy was broadcast on KBS.

“The Cheonan’s sinking was due to an unknown cause,” said the news, followed by a report that the president and security ministers had attended an emergency meeting at the Blue House.

The serious faces of the president, ministers and Blue House aides engaged in discussion were shown over and over.

However, as the nation demanded to know why the ship went down, “military” information regarding possible causes of the sinking was scarce.

I thought something was wrong, and I was reminded of the American news coverage during the two Iraq wars.

When the Persian Gulf War broke out in 1991, Gen. Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in charge of giving briefings on the progress of the war.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking officer in the military, appeared for briefings in his uniform, and he surely had authority and confidence befitting his role.

As we understand it, military issues require highly professional and specialized knowledge.

Powell presented concise and simple briefings to help average citizens understand the military issues better, and he garnered great support from the international community as well as the United States.

Moreover, his briefings helped Washington gain justification for the war.

The news coverage of the second Gulf War, or the Iraq War of 2003, was different in many ways.

First of all, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, rather than a member of the armed forces, took charge of briefing the public about the war.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff just stood at attention in full uniform next to the defense secretary.

Now, everyone admits that the second Iraq War was a conflict that lacked justification.

People grew suspicious that Rumsfeld, in his civilian suit, monopolized the briefings because Washington wanted to hide something.

If the government had meant to provide straightforward explanations about the situation in Iraq, a member of the armed forces with professional, military knowledge would have done it.

Therefore, it can only be deduced that Rumsfeld offered a “fictitious” political scenario, or a set of lies in the end; while Washington had persistently claimed it was sure that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, it was finally revealed that such weapons did not exist.

In the days immediately following the tragic Cheonan incident, initial briefings and press reports were very confusing.

It made us wonder if the government was hiding the truth or distorting it intentionally.

Above all, it is very questionable why the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not make a proper briefing about the incident immediately after the sinking of the ship.

Instead, the Blue House appeared on the stage and took over.

Naturally, people were reminded of Rumsfeld, a civilian official, monopolizing the microphone when making progress reports during the second Iraq War.

Right after the news broke, the main point of the media briefings was also made by the Blue House spokesman.

In a solemn voice, he explained the outcome of the emergency meetings at the Blue House: “The President ordered the related agencies to do their best to save lives of the sailors on the Cheonan,” he said.

At that point, the government should have let the Joint Chiefs of Staff provide an explanation containing objective and purely military information, including what had happened where and when by whom and how and why.

It would have been only fair for a member of the armed forces, the experts in the field, to make the first appearance before the media, not a Blue House spokesperson.

Maybe the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff did not have a manual ready to prepare them to respond to such an unexpected incident.

Is it possible that the military didn’t have the ability to comprehend the situation, and the system to report, collect and analyze information didn’t work either?

The chaos of the media’s reportage began brewing in the very early stages of the disaster, the moment when the Joint Chiefs of Staff took the back seat and the Blue House stepped in.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of Asian history at Dongguk University.

By Chung Tae-seob
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