Before the crack of dawn on May 9, 1970, President Richard Nixon and four Secret Service agents quietly left the White House and drove to the Lincoln Memorial, where about 300,000 anti-Vietnam War protesters were camped out. Nixon talked with the student leaders for 45 minutes before nervous Secret Service agents rushed him back to the White House. Nixon and the student leaders had little in common, and meeting did nothing to change opinions on either side.
History has treated the meeting as a bizarre incident in Nixon’s long and tumultuous career, but it remains an interesting example of presidential leadership at a time of crisis. Leadership is not limited to presidents, of course. Pope Francis’ recent visit to Korea was a lesson in leadership that gained strength from his empathy with the needs of real people.
Korea has been in a state of crisis since the Sewol ferry sank on April 16. About 300 people, most of whom were students at Danwon High School in Ansan, died in the disaster. The first wave of public outrage focused on the slow rescue effort and the unsafe condition of the boat. This wave gave way to the next wave, which focused on holding the Park Geun-hye administration accountable for the disaster. This wave peaked around the time of the local elections in early June, but candlelight vigils continued.
The most recent wave began in mid-July as Kim Yeong-ho, the father of a Sewol victim, began a hunger strike for the passage of the “Sewol Special Law” that would create an independent commission with the power to investigate the causes of the disaster and prosecute those responsible. On Aug. 22, Mr. Kim was taken to the hospital after his health weakened. He has vowed to continue his hunger strike until the special law is enacted.
As with many other things in Korea, the current impasse over the “Sewol Special Law” reflects a lack of social trust. Families of the Sewol victims do not trust the government to conduct a rigorous and impartial investigation. Deep down, the families, like many other Koreans, suspect that the political establishment is buying time in the hope that things will settle down as time goes by.
The lack of social trust in Korea is closely linked to a deeper division in Korean society: the elites versus everybody else. Throughout history, Korea has been ruled by a small but power elite. This tradition lives on most clearly in North Korea, where the elites are concentrated in the showcase capital of Pyongyang. South Korea is far more open, but the elites still make ample use of their money and connections to secure their status. The students who died came from middle and working-class families, and many Koreans suspect that the rescue effort would have been more effective if children of the elite had been on the ferry. Others suspect that the accident would not have happened in the first place because a safer boat would have been used.
From the beginning of her administration, President Park has had an oddly low profile. History may judge this positively as a sign that Korea has matured beyond the days when all politics centered on the president. In times of crisis such as now, however, her low profile hurts more than it helps because it creates the impression that she does not care about the immense loss the families of Sewol victims are experiencing. The loss of a child is the greatest loss that any parent can ever experience. The grief is permanent and each family will deal with it in its own way.
In her apology to the nation on May 19, the president cried as she spoke to the nation. This, the first presidential address on the tragedy, came more than a month after it happened. Since then, she has said little about the disaster as the National Assembly has become bogged down in partisan bickering over the special law. Out of frustration, the families have asked to meet with President Park, but have been rejected.
This is hardly a good example of presidential leadership because the most important components of such leadership are the ability to rise above the fray and help break impasses that others cannot. The time has come for President Park to meet with the families of the Sewol victims and take the lead in resolving the matter. That means finding out what happened, punishing those responsible, and enacting measures to ensure that disasters of this scale do not happen again.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser is an associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University. ― Ed.