The zeitgeist of the Sewol disaster

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The zeitgeist of the Sewol disaster


Chun Young-gi

An election reflects its time. The party that precisely addresses what citizens feel is lacking at the time nearly always wins. Filling that void is what voters expect the most. In in the Roh Moo-hyun era, it was justice, and in the Lee Myung-bak period, it was the economy.

The spirit of the time is created by the candidates. The 2014 local elections are still foggy. We don’t know how the politicians will endure the weight of the Sewol ferry crisis that changed how we perceive this world. The two parties claim that they can make Korea safer, but voters believe we are ultimately on our own.

In retrospect, the zeitgeist for the 2010 regional elections was as fierce as a storm. The relevant topic concerned free school meals. Then-Gyeonggi provincial education chief Kim Sang-kon came up with the pledge and the controversy snowballed.

The Grand National Party called it a socialist idea and President Lee Myung-bak criticized it as a populist proposal. But their claims were not effective. When the Democratic Party selected Kim’s pledge as party policy, the free school meal program spread around the country. The Grand National Party was crushed, winning only six of 16 local and metropolitan cities.

The midterm election was a fatal blow for President Lee Myung-bak and the beginning of his lame duck session. Free school meals evolved into universal welfare, stirring the 2012 general election and the presidential election.

President Park Geun-hye was able to win the election because she did not resist the trend and got onboard the “national welfare state” theory.

But you can’t turn the wheels back. The fierce spirit of welfare has lost steam in this election. Former chancellor Kim Sang-kon ran in the Gyeonggi gubernatorial race touting a free transportation policy and failed. And as time went by, many people realized that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

“Free transportation” was actually an exaggeration - it was more of a public bus service. And Kim’s failure means no free welfare benefit in the 2014 regional election.

This truth should be applied to safety as well. Safety is an incomplete zeitgeist. It can only be comprehensive when citizens approve of the expenses for it.

Ruling and opposition politicians and mayoral and gubernatorial candidates must come up with legitimate proposals, even if they may inconvenience citizens - such as real-life civil-defense and disaster evacuation drills, for instance, or enhancing safety measures when boarding ferry ships. The zeitgeist of the regional election should be the approval to accept inconvenience for safety. The candidates need to ask the voters to bear with them in enduring those inconveniences to make the country a safer place.

But the Sewol ferry accident demands inconvenient changes for the president as well. Instead of monopolizing power, she must delegate authority. She should pursue horizontal dialogues rather than vertical commands. President Park was all alone to deal with the Sewol ferry tragedy. The prime minister, ministers and the head of the Coast Guard could not help her, and the families of the victims were not willing to deal with mid-level officials. It’s not because they are incompetent. They were not in charge and were not in the position to make decisions. The president assumed authority in all matters, big and small, and other officials had no room to get involved.

Now, people have realized how weak and incompetent power is when it is monopolized by the president alone. Inevitably, voters will bring judgment to the limits of President Park’s lonesome style revealed in the aftermath of the Sewol ferry accident in the upcoming election.

This period demands the president to pursue greater and broader power, not simply might. Strong power comes from monopoly while broader power comes from sharing responsibility.

Personality does not change easily, but it is the duty of the leader to accommodate the calls of the time. The president has named a new prime minister and reshuffled the Blue House and the National Intelligence Service. She needs to make sure they can exercise their given authorities fully. The zeitgeist of the Sewol ferry demands the citizens and the president embrace inconvenient changes.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 26, Page 28

By Chun Young-gi

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

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