[Viewpoint] Reveal hypocrisy to kill a lieThe candlelight protests over U.S. beef and mad cow disease left in their wake a strange lesson. It was a nightmare for the Lee Myung-bak administration. About four years ago, Lee went up to the mountain behind the Blue House while the protesters held candles and sang the protest anthem “Morning Dew.” Lee sat alone and listened to the music from below. The scene symbolized the frustration and powerlessness of his leadership.
In a discussion hosted by the Korea News Editors’ Association in March between Lee and chief editors of newspapers and broadcasters, I had a chance to ask him a question about it. “Wasn’t the presidential leadership damaged by the idea of you on the Blue House mountain as songs were sung in protest?”
Lee answered, “Some of the politicians who participated in the protests at the time were people who had eaten many steaks with me in the United States. Their children are still eating American beef steaks in the United States. So I thought time would clear up the false arguments that led to the protests over mad cow disease.”
Lee’s remarks were interesting. They revealed the hypocrisy and pretense behind the protests. It was a charming response that toned down the drama of the mad cow disease protests. But at the time, the Lee administration failed to say what it should have said and thus was defeated. Its silence at the time demonstrates the problems in the president’s governance skills.
The fiasco over mad cow disease was about a controversy about the truth - or the falsehood - of the information being disseminated at the time, and science and common sense were altogether defeated. The rumors and false arguments that American beef imports were from infected cows and consumers would get the human form of mad cow disease spread without hindrance. PD Diary’s distortion of information was meticulous, while the opposition parties and leftist civic groups were united. Most of the public was exposed to a collective brainwashing.
Lee’s response to me was the truth. The protesters cried out that consuming American beef would infect us. But many leaders of the opposition parties and the leftist civic groups who protested against American beef were the very consumers of that meat in the United States. They enjoyed grilled beef and beef soup made from American beef in Korean restaurants in Los Angeles and New York. They have remained perfectly healthy.
Lee studied for one year at George Washington University in 1988. He met with the opposition’s leaders in Korean restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area. None were infected.
Many of the opposition and leftist civic groups’ leaders have sent their children to study in the U.S. If they were so worried about mad cow disease, they would have brought their children back home. None of their children came back because of a possible risk of contracting mad cow disease.
They knew better than anyone that American beef was safe. They concealed their experience and knowledge about the safety of U.S. beef and protested the resumption of imports by saying they wanted to protect the public’s health. And they drove the public into a totally unnecessarily fearful state.
Their goal, plain and simple, was to attack the United States and the Lee government.
At the time, most of the people expected to hear from the president. They wanted to hear the truth about mad cow disease from the president himself. But Lee disappeared. At times, science and common sense are not enough to stop groundless rumors. The critical weakness of a rumor is its hypocrisy and pretense. Lee should have made public the behavior of the opposition politicians who had eaten American beef steaks with him. Lee should have let the public know about their double standard of leaving their children in the United States.
Lee failed to use his strongest weapon to strike back. Perhaps he wanted to stay gentle or was afraid of the protesters’ counterattack. But true communication has an element of courage. The president is the control tower of a government’s public relations. Running a country is done via words. Leadership must involve the power of language. A leader should confront a controversy with the truth. That is the leadership of persuasion.
At the end of his term, Lee still doesn’t quite get it. The aftermath of his failure at the time lingered for a long time. The fallout was first felt by the middle class. Most of them believed in the safety of American beef, but they still felt uncomfortable when they went out to eat because their children were exposed to wrong information. Because they cannot afford expensive Korean hanwoo beef, they just turned to pork and chicken.
The latest outbreak of mad cow disease was discovered in a 10-year-old dairy cow in California. While Korea held candlelight protests, Europe, Japan and Canada are keeping quiet. They are countries with strict food import standards, but they remain calm and undisturbed. They still import American beef and sell it at restaurants. They didn’t dispatch investigators to the United States.
The cow was infected with an atypical strain, and the disease is not contagious. Korea is safe because it only imports meat from cows that are younger than 30 months.
The candlelight protest that took place on Wednesday in downtown Seoul near Cheonggye Stream was very different from the demonstrations that took place four years ago. Firstly, the turnout was very low. At the protest, mad cow disease was not the main topic. Groups protesting the naval base construction in Jeju, arguments about rigging in the April 11 general election and participation in media strikes were present at the protest. It was a comprehensive protest against Lee. Most of the people remembered the double standards of the protest leaders from four years ago. That discouraged the revival of the mad cow disease protests.
Lee earned the chance to strike back. His administration must show the public the hypocrisy behind the candlelight protests four years ago. That is the only way to cleanse a memory marred by distortions and agitations. It will revive society’s judgment. Lee must end the mad cow disease drama with the power of the truth. That should be included in the balance sheet of Lee’s presidency.
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon