An invisible presidentPresident Park Geun-hye’s response to the rapid spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) makes me think about George VI during World War II.
He unexpectedly ascended to the throne after his elder brother, Edward VIII, married an American divorcee and stepped down. In 1939, the war started. Although England was outside the range of Germany’s direct invasion, it still suffered severe damage from air assaults.
Many advised that the king take shelter in a safer area like Canada, but George VI rejected that recommendation and stayed at Buckingham Palace in London. On Sept. 7, 1940, Germany conducted its first air strike on the London area, which killed approximately 1,000 civilians in the East End. A week later, Germany bombed the front lawn of Buckingham Palace and the royal couple barely escaped with their lives.
But despite the incident, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, George’s wife, stated that because of the raid, she and her family had been given a glimpse of the fear England’s ordinary citizenry had been experiencing since the conflict’s start.
So in an attempt to comfort a scared public, the king visited areas damaged by air strikes as well as arms factories to boost workers’ morale. He also visited a number of British military bases, including the battle site of Normandy.
The royal family joined the distribution system, sharing goods and refraining from turning on the heat during winter. During the war, the king shared the same pain and hardship with his people, becoming a symbol of wartime resistance and unity. When the Allied Forces won the war against Germany, his people came out to the front of the palace to chant his name, and the royal family shared in that joy from the terrace of Buckingham Palace.
George VI is the perfect example of how a country’s leader should act during a national crisis.
Although we are not at war, the MERS outbreak is clearly a national crisis. The disease has spread to most parts of the country and the number of those infected has increased in areas we never expected. Some time has passed, but the outbreak still shows no sign of diminishing. The government and hospitals have failed to assure the public that they are effectively responding to the disease’s spread.
Now, the fear of getting infected from anyone and anywhere has reached its peak. Even small gatherings have been canceled, and the streets in some places stand empty.
People are hesitating to visit even small neighborhood clinics, and tourists have canceled their travel plans, which has had some economic impact. The MERS outbreak is a national disaster in which patients, the medical community and the entire nation have suffered economically and socially.
But President Park has hardly acknowledged the crisis or public concern. Not to mention the poor countermeasures taken during the early stages of the outbreak, Park has continued to show an extremely lacking administrative and bureaucratic response to the situation. Instead of giving the impression that she understands public fears and trying to work with them, her response has been extremely stiff and formal.
It is impossible to relate to the president when they see her visit a response headquarters or a hospital, receiving reports from officials, giving orders or talking to a patient via phone.
Despite the heightened sense of crisis among the people, President Park appears a step away. She does not have the courage or emotion of a leader who leads the people in overcoming a crisis.
In the past, kings refused meals, wore humble clothes and prayed for rain when their people suffered due to droughts.
Of course, the king did not have assurances that those actions would bring rain. From a scientific perspective, a rain-calling ritual conducted by a king is meaningless. But in the world of politics, it is extremely important for the king to share the pain of the people to do away with public concern, whether or not those actions really bring about rain.
In recent public opinion polls, Park’s approval ratings have significantly dropped, a reflection of the people’s disappointment toward the government and its incompetent response to the MERS crisis. But that is not the only reason.
Even if the government failed in its administrative responses, the people would have had a different reaction toward the president if she actually made an effort to grieve with the people.
Everyone is afraid, but the president’s empathy is far from apparent at this desperate time.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, June 15, Page 31
*The author is a political science professor at Seoul National University.
by Kang Won-taek