Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.05.09

What Did President Park Apologize For?

JBpress on May 2, 2014

"The apology was not a genuine one!" "The apology was not sincere enough!" "Why didn't you apologize directly to the victims?" Are these words of criticism directed against the Japanese government? No, those Korean voices were raised against the President of the Republic of Korea, their own leader. The ultimate question to be answered, however, is "What did she apologize for?"

On the evening of April 29, the silent majority of Japanese were puzzled when Tokyo TV news reported that, under growing public pressure, President Park Geun-hye had apologized earlier that day for failing to prevent a ferry disaster whose victims were mostly young South Korean high school students. Oh dear, for failing to prevent the disaster? How could she have done that?

"My heart aches thinking how I can best apologize and ease the grief and pain for the failure to prevent this accident, and for the insufficient first response." Ms Park read in a prepared statement to her cabinet, which was also shown live on South Korean national television. She also stated that "I am sorry to the people and heavy-hearted that many precious lives were lost."

Two days earlier, her prime minister took responsibility for the government handling of the incident and offered his resignation, saying that "There have been so many varieties of irregularities that have continued in every corner of our society and practices that have gone wrong."

Fair enough, but some in Tokyo still wonder what President Park really apologized for. Was she responsible for the navigation of the ferry? Was she directly involved in the rescue operation to save the students? Did she interfere with professional operations as Japan's prime minister did in 2011 during the initial stage of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster?

Of course, she is president of the republic. She is responsible for the country's overall national security and prosperity. She is an elected politician whose political responsibility is, ultimately, absolute. In the eyes of the silent majority of Japanese, however, she seemed to have apologized for something which she could not take responsibility for.

Some foreign pundits even claim that this tragedy could be attributed, not to the individual mishaps of the shipping company or the maritime policing agencies, but to the very Korean culture of government officials taking post-retirement jobs in the private-sector which they had previously overseen or their Confucianism-based seniority system in which challenging your elders is still considered a taboo.

Many Koreans disagree with such cultural explanations. Whenever accidents take place in the United States, one of them asserts, no journalists blame them on American culture. If the latest South Korean tragedy was caused by Korean culture, a similar incident should have happened in Japan where similar government-private sector relations and Confucianism-based seniority still prevail.

The issue here may not be about culture. Isn't it rather about the South Korean national character or tendency to be very quick to get emotional and blame things on easy, visible and convenient targets without looking calmly and seriously into the facts and records in a professional and objective manner?

In this regard, what one South Korean scholar recently told the Wall Street Journal was intriguing. He said that "This practice of blaming government for anything comes from the medieval kingdoms, when the king was the owner of the country and had all the fortune and power; then came the imperial and authoritarian governments that were against, not for, the people."

The famous Chinese historian and journalist Liang Qichao of the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China once described the Koreans as "Those doctrinarians who are passionate but short tempered, often recklessly stand up but fail to think about the future," and whose "high officials only value today's power and do not care even if their nation is ruined tomorrow."

Although very insightful, such generalization could be dangerous. The Koreans and the Japanese still don't know each other well enough. Japan, however, must continue to deal with the 75 million Koreans who have been living on a narrow peninsula in East Asia which has been, like Poland or Kurdistan, one of the most challenging geopolitical and strategic locations in the world.

Japanese-South Korean bilateral relations have been at their historical worst since President Lee Myung-bak landed on a small disputed island in 2012. Just a decade earlier, however, the two nations had co-hosted a FIFA World Cup and the two governments showed wisdom in agreeing to disagree on many sensitive bilateral issues at official meetings.

There seems to be no reason why they can't return to the mature relationship they used to share despite their tragic recent history. The biggest problem of South Korean democracy is that weak presidents tend to resort to dangerous but popular anti-Japanese nationalism and to trap themselves in a political quagmire which has no exits.