The trust deficit

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The trust deficit

The subway collision in Seoul demonstrates in the most concrete way a perilous breakdown in public trust. Despite the subway operator’s announcement for passengers to stay put on the two trains that collided, they broke windows and hauled themselves off. Seoul Metro said they made the announcements to prevent another accident because another train could have come down the opposite track. Luckily it didn’t. It remains to be seen whose actions were right. But the episode points to a critical loss of trust in authorities and the announcements they make in times of trouble.

In a recent OECD survey on the quality of life, only 23 percent of Koreans said they trust their government. That ratio was one of the lowest - similar to those in Greece and Italy - and it compared unfavorably with the OECD average of 39 percent. Though the research was conducted before the April 16 Sewol ferry tragedy, it succinctly encapsulates what Koreans think about their government.

Modern politics depends on so-called social capital, which is distinct from material and human capital. A mature democracy can only blossom when social capital takes root in a society. Public trust - the core of social capital - rests on a spirit of reciprocity that if one initiates virtuous action, others will do the same. The Sewol calamity and the Seoul subway accident have laid bare the alarmingly low level of social capital we have attained.

As revealed in the government’s lethargic response to the Sewol tragedy, the public sector must take primary responsibility for this crisis of trust. Let us count their worst missteps: the disaster management’s incessant flip-flops in the numbers of survivors, dead or missing; a prominent government official who played golf amid national mourning; a literally fatal lack of leadership from the Blue House and the National Assembly. Of course, the government must roll up its sleeves to recover the trust it has lost. But that’s not enough. All citizens, political parties, civic groups and teacher circles must work together to overcome the debilitating trust crisis.

Trust comes from real communication between a government and its people. The Seoul Metro advised thousands of frightened passengers to stay where they were - without any explanation. That kind of communication will never be trusted by people. Voices are growing for the need to mend our national disaster management systems and reinforce the monitoring and oversight of industries. The first step is to restore trust. As Confucius said, “people’s trust is the most important factor in politics.”

JoongAng Ilbo, May 8, Page 34

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