Honesty is the best policy

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Honesty is the best policy

Chung Un-chan

The author, a former prime minister, is the chairman of the Korea Institute for Shared Growth.

When I was a lecturer at Columbia University, my friend visited New York. We were walking in Times Square. At the sight of tall Americans, the friend exclaimed, “How tall are Yankees!” One of them who heard us retorted, “There are many tall people among yeopjeon, too!” (A yeopjeon is an old brass Korean coin with a square cut out in the center. It is used as a demeaning term for Koreans.) The New Yorker talked in perfect Korean. We apologized for calling him a “Yankee.” He laughed as they also called Koreans “yeopjeon.” We ended up having a meal at a Korean restaurant. They had been soldiers stationed in South Korea.

The episode of 40 years ago suddenly came to mind amid a protracted controversy about President Yoon Suk-yeol’s profanity-laced hot-mic moment while he was in New York to attend the UN General Assembly. Yankee was a derogatory term used during the Civil War. After the First World War, the word to refer to Americans by others around the world. In America, it also refers to disciplined and frugal people in northeastern part of the U.S. The term yeopjeon was widely used by aged Koreans before, but is rarely used today.

Luckily, my friend’s “Yankee” remark was delivered humorously. But nobody is laughing about Yoon’s alleged offending comment. In his study of social creatures in the book “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Adam Smith, an ethicist-turned-economist, found that people’s sympathy toward the expression of sentiment and action by others depends on the appropriateness of the circumstances surrounding them. He called it the perspective of an “impartial spectator.”

In any society, ordinary people as well as politicians use profane language. But they are used privately. U.S. President Joe Biden had to apologize after he was caught on camera while murmuring a curse at a Fox News reporter. Yoon, a political rookie and new to the diplomatic stage, must have used the domineering language he learned as a prosecutor even without realizing someone could have heard him on record.

Anyone can be caught in an embarrassing and awkward situation after making offending comments or acting arrogantly. But the affair can be closed if the person apologizes to the other party and if he or she accepts the apology.
President Yoon Suk-yeol reports to work at his office in Yongsan, October 20, before answering questions from reporters waiting for him at the doorstep of his office. [JOINT PRESS CORPS] 
Yoon could have been elated by Korea’s elevated national stature and the growing recognition from the country’s economic, democratic and cultural achievements. Koreans no longer need to feel small when they go abroad. But they must not act arrogant. Whether we are richer or not, modesty and respect for others are a virtue that should be upheld at any age and in any place.

The president has an enormous power, and he has enormous responsibility. A head of state represents national interest and dignity. National dignity is like trust. It is hard to build, but easy to crumble. The world is at war over economy and security. A South Korean president must always mind national interest due to belligerent North Korea.

If MBC and other media had acted as an “impartial spectator” as Smith had advised, people could have been more understanding towards his slip of the tongue, and the controversy could have been more easily resolved. Before media outlets raised the issue, they should have first considered national interest. German economist and historian Wilhelm Röpke said that for a country to prosper, legal practitioners, scholars, and media must act their role.

The rivaling political parties in Korea must end their pointless wrangling over Yoon’s slip of the tongue. People are fatigued by the never-ending senseless arguments. To put an end to the back and forth that has consumed the parties, the president must honestly explain the incident. He must say whether he thinks he made a mistake — or if he does not deserve such attacks — to put the past behind. Even if the situation had been exaggerated, he should simply apologize instead of making explanations.

The president’s dignity becomes the national dignity.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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