[Viewpoint] Korea’s coming tsunami

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[Viewpoint] Korea’s coming tsunami

As we witness the multiple calamities that beset Japan, we need to be aware that another kind of tsunami will eventually hit South Korea. But, unlike Japan, South Korea is woefully unprepared. The tsunami I’m referring to is a man-made one, coming from the north. No one knows the future of North Korea but few observers believe that the present government and order will last forever. With our neighbor’s demise, we must expect an onslaught of refugees.

While it is possible that North Korea may morph into a de facto Chinese-controlled region, or possibly there could be a second Korean War, it is more likely there will be an eventual breakdown of social order. Regardless of the heavily mined DMZ, South Korea will almost certainly be flooded with refugees.

We already can learn much from the Japanese in how they prepared for disaster and now are coping with it. For example, the Japanese learned a great deal from errors they made during the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Needless lives were lost in 1995 because bureaucrats were afraid to take initiatives, such as immediately accepting outside rescue assistance. Foreign rescue dogs were even put in quarantine upon arrival. The exasperating bureaucratic nonsense went on and on while buried victims died.

Now, though, we should learn and apply lessons from observations of Japan.

First, a deluge of refugees will tax the capacity of most South Korean government services. Coordination among ministries will be essential. There needs to be a protocol that allows for various bureaucrats to act decisively and in coordination with other organizations. This kind of planning should recognize at what point the Republic of Korea needs immediate, outside emergency aid - and how an appeal for aid may be done.

Second, the ROK government must practice transparency prior, as well as during, times of emergency. Any government’s most valuable commodity is its credibility. Before a crisis, its citizenry must believe and trust the government’s information and direction. That requires government officials to resist the human tendency to spin negative developments with overly positive news deliveries. Stonewalling, such as seriously understating setbacks, can create serious public confusion. People are not stupid for long. Obfuscating bureaucrats are soon second-guessed by the public. On the other hand, if government offices are candid and honest, the fullest cooperation among all parts of society may be possible.

Looking at Japan, we first saw the prime minister and his subordinates doing a decent job, under incredibly difficult and changing circumstances - but only up to a point. When the nuclear energy accidents began, the Japanese government delegated their precious credibility to the private utility company, Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company), to keep the public informed of radiation hazards.

Tepco’s management has given vague and understated descriptions of the current crisis. The lesson is, do not delegate your credibility to others. If a government must get critical information from third parties, check it for reasonable accuracy and present only the information that the government actually believes to the public.

Turning to the victims, many commentators have marveled at how stoically the Japanese are enduring their travails with a minimum of panic while maintaining common courtesy. Those of us who have lived in Japan are not surprised. The Japanese are socialized from childhood to control their emotions.

But there is something else. That is the remarkable planning and preparation in most facets of Japanese life, including contingency planning for when Plan A fails.

While we cannot expect Korean society to emulate the Japanese in this aspect, the Japanese example of multiple contingency planning may be a good model for Korean disaster relief preparation. That would include informing the general public the degree of preparation to provide assurance there is a high degree of preparedness, and thereby reduce public anxiety.

Turning our gaze within Korea, another form of preparation, which is long overdue, is for the ROK government to promote positive attributes of North Koreans. South Koreans have distrusted North Koreans long before to the nation became divided.

The sooner people in the south get over their regional prejudices, the easier it will be for everyone once unification takes place.

In contrast to all of this, one doesn’t get the sense that truly serious planning has been made, at least to match the scale of accommodating tens of thousands of refugees. It’s to President Lee Myung-bak’s credit that he proposed a 1 percent unification sales tax last August. If there are some Koreans who don’t think they need a unification tax, they may be like the Japanese who may have thought a tsunami warning system was a waste of money. In any case, some countries lie in the path of future tsunamis. Most tsunamis are natural. And again, some are not. How societies fare in the long run will be the result of their timely preparations.

*The writer is the president of Soft Landing Consulting Ltd.

By Tom Coyner
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