South Korea – The President and Credible Apologies

A month ago, President Park and her ruling Saenuri Party appeared invulnerable: polls showed her approval ratings in the high 60-70% range. The opposition party alliance, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) – considered a potent threat when it first coalesced – failed to materialize as a peril to her government. Even the backtracking of her election-pledge to reform the party-nomination process did not dent the president’s popularity. Indeed, rather than pushed onto the defensive regarding the party-nomination reform, President Park’s resolve on maintaining some form of party-nomination forced the NPAD to abandon its campaign for reform and, instead, field party-nominated candidates for the local elections in June. President Park looked set to plough ahead through the rest of the year, with many anticipating a reinforced government-base from an unmatched, if not unprecedented, mid-term election success for a governing party in Korea.

Yet, the President’s fortunes have seen a dramatic reversal: following the ferry disaster on April 16, 2014, that saw more than 300 dead or missing, the President’s approval rating has fallen below 50 percent. Public anger at the government’s slow response and subsequent failure to save the victims – mostly high school students on an organized trip to the resort island of Jeju – has ignited protests, sit-ins, and rallies against the government. Further, it has unleased a storm of criticisms against the media for positive coverage of the incident, and a general backlash against the ruling Saenuri Party so that the previous solid electoral victories are now on the line for the June 4 local elections. Prime Minister Chung Hong-won offered his resignation to accept responsibility for the government’s poor performance, but that did not tamper public anger. Instead, social media and public forums remarked on the lack of an apology from the President. 13 days after the ferry sinking, President Park apologized to the families of the victims during a cabinet meeting. Yet, rather than provide comfort, the apology seemed to ignite more public displeasure with the government. President Park’s second apology only days later fueled further public disfavour. 34 days after the incident, the President apologized again in a televised address as her approval ratings tumble down into the low 40s. Clearly, the public is looking for a credible apology. What does a credible apology comprise?

Studies of credible apologies note that two processes are integral to apologies: (a) increase in monitoring of the government, i.e., review and assessment by committees comprising non-government citizens; and (b) government accountability and responsibility for the incidents.1

Increase in monitoring of the government – through review and assessment – makes clear that the President and her administration have a commitment towards transparency, accountability, and capacity-building. Further, the inclusion of non-government personnel in these committees is directly relevant to the government’s credibility: in particular, it provides integrity to the process and ensures that the government accountability in part (b) does not merely represent scapegoating or efforts to placate the disaffected.2 Government accountability and responsibility means that government officials and representatives are dismissed, replaced, or demoted, or government ministries and agencies are downsized or eliminated. This government accountability, then, acknowledges the impact and devastation on lives and livelihood and demonstrates a commitment to preventing similar devastation.

More than a month after the ferry disaster, the President is taking steps in the direction of credible apologies with the televised national address and the disbanding of the Coast Guard. Importantly, in this renewed effort to rehabilitate public trust, there must be diligence in including private sector in monitoring and reviewing changes so that integrity in the accountability process is ensured. Thus, for instance, it is one thing for the Prime Minister to take responsibility, but another for the resignation to resonate as credible accountability.

Too often, public confidence in the government is relegated as a natural offshoot of work to be accomplished or scuttled to the sidelines for a later date. Hopefully, it is clear that purposeful rebuilding of public confidence through credible apologies is key to short- and long-term stability and success.

[1] The concept of credible apologies draws in part on the strategy of “tit-for-tat with apologies.” See Randall Calvert, “Communications in Institutions: Efficiency in a Repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma with Hidden Information,Yap (2005).

[2] See Yap (2003).

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