[Column] The psychology of illusions

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[Column] The psychology of illusions

Kim Hyun-ki

The author is the Tokyo bureau chief and rotating correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.

In 2009, the chairman of a prominent Japanese newspaper was invited to the Samsung Group guesthouse, Seungjiwon. During a meal, Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee asked him, “What do you think is the big principle of organizational leadership?” The newspaper chairman replied, “I think it’s 343. In any organization, there are leaders, the middle ground, and opposition forces. I think it’s ideal to keep the ratio to 30 percent, 40 percent, and 30 percent.”

After listening carefully, Chairman Lee said, “I think differently. I think it’s 595. The core 5% of the minority elite leads the organization, 90% of the people do what they are told to do, and the other 5% are useless. The key to organizational leadership is how to nurture the top 5% and how to cut the bottom 5%.” Current Samsung Electronics Chair Lee Jae-yong, then an executive director, was listening to the conversation.

The chairman of the newspaper said, “I saw the top as 30% and Chairman Lee saw it as 5%. At that time, I thought Lee was very cold-hearted, but now it seems that Samsung’s success resulted from the company’s strategy of making employees have the illusion that they belong to the top 5 percent.” Those are positive illusions as defined by renowned psychologist Shelley Taylor.

There are unrealistic illusions, too. The Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s response to MBC is the case. It is delusional if the government thought a majority of people would support its hardline response to a provocative reporter from the broadcaster. That would be fantasy. From the beginning of the MBC scandal, I was reminded of the case of Tatsuya Kato, director of Japanese Sankei Shimbun’s Seoul branch. In 2014, he wrote a column raising serious questions about where President Park Geun-hye was on the day the Sewol ferry sank. It was a malicious article written without fact-checking. The Blue House was outraged. The prosecution eventually banned Kato from leaving Korea and indicted him.

But a court acquitted him. From the start, it was difficult to prove the purpose of the slander. At that time, some worried that Kato would become a hero. That’s what happened. When Kato returned to Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called him to the prime minister’s residence. Kato’s book, “Why Did I Beat Korea? The 500-Day War with Park Geun-hye,” became a bestseller in Japan. Kato has been appointed a Cabinet intelligence analyst with a high salary in the Japanese government.

After the battle with President Yoon, MBC’s viewership is rising and the reporter who yelled at the president won an award. That is like a deja vu of the Kato incident. Yoon’s fury only benefitted MBC.

What would be the peak of such an illusion? Poet Park No-hae said that if someone believes he or she is the only one who is different, it is a “huge illusion.” That’s exactly what the Moon Jae-in administration officials were like. Shortly after taking office, they chorused, “Our clearing of deep-rooted evils is different from political retaliation in the past.” They justified everything with candlelight protests. The presidential chief of staff even sent an official letter to government ministries to demand they report on the status of their own task force to “clean up deep-rooted evils.” The liberal administration summoned more than 1,000 people from the past administration and arrested more than 200. It was a rare administration that sent two presidents, the presidential chiefs of staff, the chief of national security and all three National Intelligence Service (NIS) chiefs of the Park administration to prison.

After a wild witch hunt, a country we had never experienced before was created. When former NIS director Seo Hoon under the Moon Jae-in administration was arrested after the change in ruling power, they poured out harsh words. “All-directions political retaliation has begun. President Yoon is cowardly,” said Moon’s former chief of staff. “Political retaliation made victims, but the Yoon administration has no remorse and is running wild,” said Moon’s former secretary for state affairs.

I am dumbfounded. Those who make others cry bloody tears will have to stand naked in the empty field of history someday. If you are confident that “I will be fine, this time will be fine, and we will be fine,” that’s simply a “huge illusion.”
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