Fortune-teller and Cheonan
By Michael Breen
When I asked a skeptical friend recently what he thought about the sinking of the Cheonan, he said he did not believe the government’s claim that the navy frigate was torpedoed by a North Korean submarine.
``It was the Americans,” Mr. Kim, my friend, said. You have to be careful these days so I’m calling him just Mr. Kim to protect his real identity. Actually that is his name, although you might choose not to believe me. ``The Cheonan was hit by an American torpedo.”
Here is that theory in a nutshell: on the fateful night of March 26 this year during a live U.S.-Korean navy drill, an American vessel fired and hit the Cheonan. It was a mistake rather than a deliberate act. And Kim’s evidence for this version of events? It’s what his fortune-teller told him.
Our conversation went on for about 20 minutes, during which Kim, an educated consultant without particular ideological leanings, referred to this scenario as the true story.
There are two extraordinary aspects to this. One is the refusal of Kim, like an estimated 25 percent of other South Koreans, to accept the results of the official investigation undertaken by a joint team from Korea, America, Sweden, Australia, and Britain. The other is his willingness to believe that the lady with the tarot cards in the tent on Seoul’s central Jongro Street has the answer.
Why does Kim disagree with the official story? It is certainly the most obvious conclusion and one backed by evidence, notably the alleged torpedo itself salvaged from the sea bed, and by logic with regard to motive and capability.
But, as his preference for the fortune-teller’s tale suggests, when there is basic mistrust, no amount of evidence is persuasive. In fact, if anything, good evidence works the other way. The more rational the case, the less its emotional appeal. For those in such a frame of mind, truth recedes to a place where it can only be reached by those with access to the files or by shamans who have alternative means to get there.
Such mistrust of authority and their public announcements has its roots in how power used to be wielded as a club against truth. For example, the mass executions by the government of thousands of citizens without trial during the Korean War were blamed on communists. For years afterwards, family members of victims who knew the truth were closely monitored and prevented from speaking out.
Times, of course, have changed. But even in democratic Korea, there seems to be a preference for suppression over debate. When a former senior presidential secretary under the previous government asked in a radio interview for greater disclosure from the military and government, the defense minister, Kim Tae-young, charged him with defamation.
Minister of Public Administration and Security Maeng Hyung-kyu said on May 20 that the government would prosecute people who spread ``groundless rumors” about the Cheonan over the internet. Using the old dictatorship excuse of national defense, he said, ``Anyone who makes false reports or articles about the incident could seriously damage national security. We will not let these be the basis of any risks the nation faces.”
Even the top diplomat, Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, undiplomatically chose irritated dismissal over argument when he suggested last week that young people who criticize the government’s North Korea policies should go and live there.
This type of reaction suggests that government leaders lack the intellectual ability to analyze their opponents’ views and address them. Or, worse, perhaps they see no point in trying.
But modern Korea needs leaders with the ability to debate and persuade. Without such people in charge, there will be no progress in the development in Korea of a culture of trust, arguably the most profound and important long-term issue the country faces. And, for as long as they do not trust, Koreans will seek refuge in the visions of the lady with the tarot cards.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at email@example.com.