[Hwang Jang-jin] Park Geun-hye’s Sewol crisis

By Korea Herald
  • Published : May 29, 2014 - 20:44
  • Updated : Jun 2, 2014 - 20:08
President Park Geun-hye has a knack for crafting pithy sound bites and taking swift action to move the public, disarm enemies and ride out of trouble at critical moments.

At this time of national tragedy, however, her political genius is failing to deliver.

Her latest catchphrase, “state reformation,” is widely dismissed as being far-fetched, empty and even illusory. Her hasty decision to reorganize the government and botched choice of a new prime minister have unleashed a torrent of criticism.

A legion of faults was to blame for the deadly ferry disaster on April 16 ― corruption, deviation from safety procedures, incompetence, poor coordination and so on. Now Koreans are witnessing a risk that’s just as grave: An unaccountable and unreflective type of politics.

“Tears came too late, measures too early.” So said opposition leader Kim Han-gil after Park’s news conference on May 19.

For all the inconsistency and obstructionism of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, Kim’s comment reflects popular sentiment toward the administration.

Park’s news conference came at a critical juncture following the maritime disaster that killed more than 300 people. It was hoped that the head of state would manage to work her political magic and put the country on a path to resilience, stability and healing.

The result was the opposite. After the president vented her fury on the ferry’s owner and crew, scolded the “cowardly” Coast Guard, and condemned the cozy relationship between regulators and businesses, her claim of full responsibility for the incident sounded superficial.

Even the tears the steely leader shed while calling the names of those who sacrificed themselves to save others drew awkward arguments about whether they were out of grief or anger.

It is no wonder that she met a lackluster response given the depth of public mistrust in her government caused by the delayed rescue, misinformation and bureaucratic inertia.

Further fanning public anger were a series of gaffes. A senior Security and Public Administration Ministry official was sacked after trying to create a photo-op at the shelter for victims’ families. Park’s spokesman came under fire for making a jocular defense of a minister who was criticized for eating in less Spartan conditions than those available for the victims’ families. The spokesman was later slammed again for speaking of an unconfirmed reward for divers working to recover bodies from the sunken ferry.

Park’s reform plans focused on the creation of a new national safety agency to take over disaster management duties from various government organizations. Park unveiled the shocking decision to dismantle the Coast Guard office and pledged to restrict retired officials from being “parachuted” into top-level posts in businesses and organizations related to their duties.

Underscoring her resolve to ensure “the country will not be the same again after 4/16,” she vowed to whittle down two behemoth organizations ― the Ministry of Security and Public Administration and the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. The former was significantly augmented and the latter was revived by the president.

The drastic plans, however, hardly resonate with the public. It is not just that the breakdown of trust has eroded the grounds for a constructive discussion.

Critics accused her of putting the cart before the horse, with her response bordering on the kind of rashness, procedural ignorance and blind pursuit of results that caused the ferry to capsize.

Park hastily reached a conclusion even before starting a full-fledged inquiry into the problems and without sufficient public debate on the benefits and costs of the restructuring.

In less than 10 days, the government had to readjust the plan to scale down the Security Ministry after its members filed a report on the need to retain its organizational functions.

On Tuesday, she also announced a plan to reinstate the post of deputy prime minister in charge of educational, cultural and social affairs, drawing criticism from her like-minded advocates of a small government for adding another cumbersome and functionally overlapping bureaucratic layer.

The proposal of a new safety agency was a response to public outrage toward the government’s woefully disorganized and inefficient handling of the Sewol disaster. The idea of a centralized disaster management system has popped up nearly every time a catastrophe has struck the country, leading to the creation of the National Emergency Management Agency in 2004.

The Sewol incident proved that the agency lacked actual power to harness resources scattered among various entities and localities. The public security minister also failed to carry out his role of coordinating responses among ministries.

But skeptics say the systemic reconfiguration will not fix the more fundamental problems that arise from operational deviation, unclear mandates for agencies and a lack of respect for disaster experts in the government.

Moreover, officials and experts still differ over questions regarding the envisioned safety office’s appropriate place and standing within the government, the division of duties to handle various types of hazards, and how to best orchestrate emergency efforts from central agencies, local administrations and the civilian sector.

The proposal to abolish the Coast Guard and downsize the Oceans Ministry raised concerns about the possible negative impact on the nation’s maritime interests and coastal security. It has already backfired, with scores of demoralized senior Coast Guard members applying for early retirement. 

While bashing the shoddy practice of retired officials landing positions in private firms and government affiliates, she did not mention a number of such entities that have become the dumping grounds for her political cronies.

Park paid the price for these unscrupulous connections after her Prime Minister nominee Ahn Dae-hee withdrew Wednesday amid allegations that he may have taken advantage of his past positions as a Supreme Court justice and Park’s key election campaigner while practicing law afterwards.

Koreans do not want to see the Sewol debacle sink Park into lame duck status. Just as the disaster should be a catalyst for a fundamental shift in the nation’s risk management, it is hoped that the president will not squander her chance to forge good statecraft. This will require long-term thinking, self-reflection and openness to a wide spectrum of opinions. 

By Hwang Jang-jin

The writer is managing editor of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at jjhwang@heraldcorp.com. ― Ed.