[Viewpoint] How leaders deal with crises

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[Viewpoint] How leaders deal with crises

I am moving to another home soon, and all of my friends keep peppering me with questions, such as “When are you moving?” and “How much did you pay for the new house?” I tell them that in my household, I make the big decisions and I leave the details to my wife, and therefore I don’t know the nitty-gritty.

I was referencing the old joke that wives do “peculiar jobs” in the family unit, such as buying houses and cars, while husbands concentrate on “important tasks” such as guarding world peace. In reality, I am the head of my household, so of course I don’t take my family’s move to a new home lightly.

Husband and wives play different roles in their households and families depending on their situations, but the job of running a country can’t be handled so casually or fluidly. The role of a nation’s leader is spelled out in a constitution, and it is not something to be altered lightly.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan faced fierce criticism in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake in northeastern Japan. He apparently failed to distinguish between “important tasks” and “peculiar jobs,” what a prime minister must and must not do.

Shortly after the earthquake and tsunami struck the country, Kan saw reports that the nuclear power plant in Fukushima was damaged. He immediately ordered sea water to be used to cool the damaged reactors. As an engineer who studied applied physics at Tokyo Institute of Technology, Kan thought he had the knowledge to deal with the situation.

However, he stepped back when the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) strongly opposed his plan to cool the reactors. Taking the situation too lightly, Kan repeatedly instructed his nation to remain calm. The United States offered to help, detecting a snowballing risk, but Kan turned it down.

The next day, he visited the nuclear power plant, dismissing his aides’ concerns that his visit would only hinder the workers’ desperate efforts to cool the reactors. After the visit, during a summit with an opposition party leader, he strongly argued that the nuclear reactors were not in peril. But only an hour after his return, the first explosion took place at reactor No. 1.

As the crisis escalated, he visited Tepco on March 15 and scolded officials, saying, “I want you all to be determined.” After he came back to his residence, he exploded in anger, calling Tepco executives idiots.

Let’s ponder the matter. A nation’s leader must not make judgments on a technical issue based on his own personal knowledge. There are more than enough qualified engineers and physicists in Japan. Because he was arguing with Tepco based on a shallow comprehension of the situation, Kan should have stepped back.

Although he criticized Tepco for making a wrong initial judgment, it was he who should have sought experts’ opinions to make a better judgment from the beginning. The final decision is the responsibility of the prime minister. It was Kan who should have been called an idiot.

The Fukushima Daiichi disaster was unprecedented. It was beyond the scope of existing systems and manuals. It was urgent for Tokyo to come up with countermeasures, but Kan decided to visit the nuclear plant to boost his political image and to be seen on television. It is natural that Kan was criticized for trying to improve his plummeting popularity rather than paying more attention to the nuclear crisis.

Leadership crises aren’t unique to Japan. Since the Lee Myung-bak administration began, ambitious state projects were announced, but they went down in flames. The plan to scrap the Sejong City project is one example. President Lee put all the burden on then-Prime Minister Chung Un-chan. It was impossible for Chung to persuade Park Geun-hye, former Grand National chairwoman, of the merits of the revision, and even less so the opposition parties. Although the decision to kill the revision plan was handed over to the National Assembly, Lee will never escape his responsibility for its failure.

Lee also handed over the task of selecting sites for the controversial science belt and a new international airport to the Prime Minister’s Office. During his live television appearance last month around the Lunar New Year, Lee said the prime minister would create a committee and the committee would seriously debate the issues to reach a conclusion. Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik now holds the poisoned chalice given to Chung.

Once again, an election pledge became a liability. Lee admitted he had promised the Chungcheong people the science belt project during his campaign because he was interested in the region’s votes. Lee must first apologize and assume full responsibility.

Lee has never hosted a proper press conference to answer reporters’ questions, but he still visits markets and restaurants to “connect with the public.” Lee’s visits are no better than Kan’s visit to the nuclear plant.

As we can see from Japan, followers don’t follow when the leadership is weak. Ahead of next year’s legislative and presidential elections, populism has hit a peak. If this situation continues, politicians will deserve the criticism of being idiots.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jin-kook
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