Let me ask our readers a question: Do you think it was appropriate for our minister of foreign affairs to go to Budapest, Hungary, to join rescue operations for Korean tourists missing when their boat sank in the Danube River? I expect a negative answer, but President Moon Jae-in and his aides thought it was necessary.
These days, many are concerned that Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa is somewhat off the line of the denuclearization business against North Korea. Yet, she is responsible for the multilateral diplomacy to put maximum pressure on Pyongyang, which should occupy as much time and energy of hers as possible.
According to the Foreign Ministry calendar, Minister Kang had a five-day visit to France until May 25 to attend the 2019 ministerial council meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, where she had talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono. Five days later, she flew back to Europe as the tourist boat Hableany (Mermaid) sank in Budapest, leaving seven Koreans dead and 19 others missing.
President Moon assigned the foreign minister to chair an ad hoc Central Safety Countermeasures Headquarters and decided that she should go to the disaster scene in Hungary to assemble and direct a large team of Korean officials and experts. They are from the Foreign Ministry, National Intelligence Service, Maritime Police, Navy and National Fire Agency, and include divers, medics and mental therapists.
Minister Kang stayed in Budapest for two days before returning home Sunday afternoon. She met senior Hungarian officials and members of the composite rescue party from Korea. Despite hard efforts by Hungarians, Koreans and rescue workers from other nations along the Danube, it is unlikely that the number of victims will change, after only seven were instantly rescued from the swollen waters on the night of May 29.
At this time when Koreans go abroad massively in individual and group tours -- to an aggregate total of 30 million last year -- with visitors to Europe increasing rapidly, the Danube accident was shocking news. Particularly tragic were multiple deaths of family members in the tour package.
Furthermore, the memory of the Sewol ferry sinking in April 2014, which killed 305 people including many high school students on a school tour, is driving our president to a somewhat precipitant reaction to the maritime accident half a globe away. Sewol symbolizes the sinking of political power as it marked the beginning of the unraveling of the Park Geun-hye presidency.
Investigations found the president’s actions on the disaster tactless and, worst of all, slow. She became a Marie Antoinette in 21st century Korea as true and fake stories of her alleged misdeeds spread wildly via orthodox and unorthodox media. On top of them was the “seven-hour mystery,” referring to the long time unaccounted for between the sinking of the ferry and her first public appearance as president in the government’s disaster control center.
As the female president’s private affairs were not sufficiently explained, Korea’s chief executive lost a lot of credibility and new suspicions arose concerning her dependence on old friend Choi Sun-sil and favors to her. We now dizzily recall the rapid turn of events passing through criminal indictments of Park’s close aides, the splitting of the government party and finally the presidential impeachment in 2017 after months of candlelight demonstrations in Seoul.
It is understandable that President Moon and the ruling group would have a flashback of the Sewol tragedy from any maritime accident with several fatalities. It is not difficult to read their anxious mind to prove clear difference from the previous administration in handling such disasters. They need to convince the people that, with their liberal ideology and philosophy, they never concede the absolute value of human life and that nothing precedes the task of saving humanity in government business.
Moon Jae-in was elected in the snap election in May 2017 following Park’s departure. When he was visiting the memorial site for the dead in the ferry accident, President Moon, inadvertently or not, revealed his sense of indebtedness to the young victims. He wrote on the visitors’ book at the altar: “My dear boys and girls, I am sorry and thankful to you.”
When the first report of the river accident in Budapest reached the Blue House in the early morning of May 30, the president ordered a set of extraordinary measures. He postponed a luncheon meeting with meritorious service officials scheduled for the day and had his spokespersons brief the press almost on an hourly basis to inform them of detailed steps the government was taking on the accident in Budapest. Moon chaired a meeting of concerned ministers where all participants were shown wearing the yellow jumper uniform for use in national emergency.
Moon called Hungarian President Janos Ader to get his assurance of unsparing rescue efforts. Some of his further actions, however, were impractical, considering the nature of the disaster, the time elapsed and the distance from Korea to the scene of the sinking. Moon stressed that “what’s important is speed” in handling matters like this, according to a spokesperson. It sounded as if he were sitting in the Sewol disaster countermeasures headquarters.
The president instructed concerned officials to mobilize essential personnel and equipment and dispatch them to Hungary in the shortest possible time. He specifically ordered the use of rescue experts who had participated in the Sewol operations along with divers from the Navy and Maritime Police.
Every bit of his instructions, including the dispatch of the foreign minister to Budapest, showed the sense of urgency the president had at the moment he received the disaster report. Regrettably, they put to doubt his sense of balance in perceiving the situation and in the ways and means of solution.
The foreign minister might have felt obliged to do everything that would help raise public trust in her ministry especially after a series of business mistakes Korean diplomats have recently made at home and abroad. Yet, the Korean ambassador to Budapest or an assistant minister could have done the job effectively in collaboration with the Hungarian authorities.
If the latest maritime accident offered a chance to appreciate the president’s warm-hearted, meticulous leadership, it also caused genuine worries about his capacity of judgment in time of emergency as bad as the sinking of the Mermaid, or worse.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com -- Ed.