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[Reporter's Column] President’s failed Sewol apologies

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Published : 2014-05-07 20:45
Updated : 2014-05-07 20:45

President Park Geun-hye has delivered two public apologies over the government’s mishandling of the ferry disaster since last week. But they don’t seem to have worked: They have neither soothed the angry public nor helped them move on from the tragedy.

Many had believed that the South Korean leader would offer an apology in a separate setting, holding herself responsible and urging people to unite in this difficult time. But her first apology, carried out in front of the Cabinet on April 29, was disastrous. 
President Park Geun-hye

The president said during a meeting with ministers that she felt “sorry and heavy-hearted” about the victims and that she would punish those who were involved in the accident so as to prevent another tragedy. She added that the government would better handle and prevent disasters in the future by launching a new ministry on safety affairs.

She might have thought it would work. Instead, her apology intensified criticism of her sincerity and put her leadership into question. Victims’ families argued that she lacked a display of sincerity. Media criticized her gesture as mediocre. The main opposition party attacked Park as not having done enough to console the wounded hearts of the victims’ families and the people.

Her approval rating dropped from the 60 percent range to 40 percent range in the weeks before and after the accident, reflecting her failure to manage the crisis and communicate with the public in a time of emergency.

Park must have overlooked one important fact ― that what the public really wanted from her was a responsible leader who tried to empathize with victims and the public and heal their wounds, not a leader who could fiercely criticize officials neglecting their duties and reaffirm her will to revamp the irregularities that caused the accident.

Amid growing public anger directed at Cheong Wa Dae, Park made another apology on Sunday during a Buddhist ceremony that paid tribute to victims of the accident. In her speech she reiterated that the president has a duty to protect the nation and expressed an apology to the bereaved families. But she failed to draw public attention and get them on her side. She lost that opportunity in the first apology.

Park seems to think she is just unfortunate to have such a tragedy happen during her tenure, and may not have the kind of personality to accept responsibility for something that was not her fault, even if the situation requires it.

She and her office have been acting too defensively. This attitude has led to a series of insensitive comments by its officials. Kim Jang-soo, head of the presidential office of national security, came under scrutiny after he denied that Cheong Wa Dae serves as a “control tower” in the event of an emergency. Presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook said it is “regrettable and a pity” that the victims’ families protested against the president and viewed her apology as insincere.

The disaster that left more than 300 missing or dead obviously wasn’t her doing. But it is her job to step up to say she is the one who holds the ultimate duty to protect the nation and ensure public security. There is nothing wrong with saying, “I am responsible.”

By Cho Chung-un (christory@heraldcorp.com)

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