Not pretty picturesIn this age of social networking via the mobile Internet, a single photo can speak louder than many words. A photo from the opening ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture last month did just that. Former President George W. Bush tapped on the shoulder of President Barack Obama with his phone and the incumbent president happily took a picture of the president in the warm embrace of his wife Michelle Obama with former first lady Laura Bush leaning in with a smile.
The picture was a symbolic image of what America aspires to uphold — national harmony regardless of ethnic, political, economic and gender differences. It tells how ordinary American presidents can be.
The new film “Sully” directed by Clint Eastwood recaptures the 2009 tale of a commuter jet making an emergency landing in the Hudson River under command of captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, which waved the lives of all 155 passengers and crew. The poster shows all the passengers waiting to be rescued from the wings of the jet above the river waters. It reminds me of the sinking of the Sewol ferry, which killed most of its passengers. Captain Sully was the final person off of his plane after making sure everyone was safely out. He refused to take heroic credit, saying he was just a man doing a job. But here in Korea, there are so many that neglect their duties, including the captain of the Sewol, who was the first to flee the ship in his underwear, leaving his passengers behind to die ignominiously.
Another photo became a social media sensation. It was of Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano, who had emerged an unlikely hero during Japan’s 2011 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant meltdown. Clad in a jumpsuit, Edano became a regular on TV briefing the people on details of the rescue attempts. People went on social media to beg him to go to sleep. Edano stayed awake for 109 hours.
Public confidence in the government rose thanks to its tireless spokesman. Korean bloggers brought the photo up to contrast the laid-back attitude of our government after a series of powerful earthquakes on the southern coast. Edano posed a stark contrast to the Korean weather agency manual that instructs underlings not to awaken the minister in charge of public safety in the middle of the night if there is an earthquake.
The reputation of our courts hit a nadir after senior judge Kim Soo-cheon was charged with taking a luxury car and other bribes from Jung Woon-ho, former chief executive of budget cosmetics company Nature Republic, who was embroiled in an illegal gambling scandal. There was a legendary judge in Japan during the American occupation following Japan’s World War II defeat. He was a Tokyo judge in charge of overseeing a law controlling food supplies after the war. He called the law evil, but as a judge had the duty to comply with the law no matter how bad it was. Although he could afford to buy food on the black market, he chose not to and tried to get by on the meager government handouts. He reportedly died of malnutrition at the age of 33.
The prosecution is grappling with even worse publicity after a series of major scandals including the arrest of a senior prosecutor, Jin Kyung-joon, for pocketing shares in the lucrative game company Nexon.
Japanese prosecutors are famed for high ethical standards. Prosecutors hardly eat outside their cafeteria. Because of their cleanness, prosecutors are favorite choices for senior bureaucratic positions that require strict fairness and honesty. The government picked Masaharu Hino, head of the Nagoya High Prosecutor’s Office, as the first chief of the Financial Inspection Agency in 1998. Yasuchika Negoro, head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office, headed the Fair Trade Commission. Another Nagoya chief prosecutor, Toshihiro Mizuhara, was handpicked to spearhead Japan’s first securities watchdog. Prosecutors were a reliable solution to the problem of corrupt bureaucrats in Japan.
There were many heroic cases among ordinary people, including one man who saved 10 people from a fire in Euijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province, who declined to accept any reward. He said he was only doing his job. Another person died at the age of 28 saving others from a fire in Seoul. But we hear of no such selfless acts from the presidential office, politicians or bureaucrats.
Instead, we get uncomfortable scenes. A lawmaker posted a picture of himself enjoying Jjajangmyeon, Chinese noodles, while the ruling party boss was on a hunger strike. There was a posting of a fried chicken binge next to a hunger strike by families of victims following the sinking of the Sewol. The only honorable story we can dig out from the public sector is a scene in which former Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik shrugged off an attempt by his security guard to cover him with an umbrella, choosing to stand in the winter rain during a 40-minute memorial for the victims of the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea in 2011.
We can only envy such admirable scenes from overseas. From the public sector, we do not ask for heroism on a regular basis, but decorum would be nice. A captain deserting his ship and its passengers, corrupt prosecutors and judges, and minister asleep while the country is shaken by an earthquake make us utterly skeptical and despondent about our public figures. There is a Western saying that a fish rots from the head down. We fear the rot in our society is starting to spread.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 3, Page 22
*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
More in Columns
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?
Fighting Chinese patriotism
The curse of the presidency