By Sunnie Giles
At the heart of the Koreans’ rage in President Park Geun-hye’s scandal is a sense of betrayal. Park must facilitate a sense of belonging and connection among Koreans as one people. Then, and only then, will the maximum potential of Park’s vision of the Creative Economy be fulfilled and for the growth and prosperity as one Korea.
President Park Geun-hye is facing the most disastrous crisis of her political career with the recent allegations concerning Choi Soon-sil. Ms. Choi, a personal friend of the President’s for over 40 years, has no official government responsibilities, but it appears that President Park has consulted her as to many aspects of running the Korean government, Choi even benefiting financially from those consultations. As a result, Park’s approval rating has hit an all-time low.
As a leadership consultant and organisational scientist based in the US, where the public outrage for the Clintons’ quid-pro-quo influence peddling through her right-hand woman Huma Abedin is swelling in the wake of emails recently exposed on WikiLeaks, I offer my perspective on why this case is creating such a significant wave of public rage, and a possible path forward for the Korean people to repair the current crisis.
At the heart of the Koreans’ rage in this scandal is a sense of betrayal. These allegations come on the heels of the implementation of an anti-corruption law, the Kim Young-ran Act. This act was launched with much public fanfare, and applies specific and strict regulations on what constitutes special favours; for instance, it limits the price of a business meal to 30,000 won. This law was designed to level the playing field between those with vested rights and privileges and those without them, and to increase transparency and fairness in business and government practices. However, the Choi scandal has exposed inconsistency between the ideals represented by the Kim Young-ran Act and the reality of life in Korea.
This inconsistency results in a sense of betrayal. From a neuroscientific point of view, betrayal generates a violation of safety. Our brain detects a lack of safety in eight milliseconds. It does so well beneath consciousness, at the brainstem level, which controls our autonomic nervous system. This primal detection mechanism was developed to maximise our chances of survival in a world full of predators. Our brain’s hierarchical signal-processing system checks for safety first, trumping all other needs, including connection, learning and innovation. My recent global leadership research reveals that among other things, safety stems from the high moral and ethical standards of our leaders, and their consistency between words and actions.
The sense of betrayal the public feels makes even more sense in the context of the implicit Confucian agreement that those who are entrusted with power should serve others with parental mercy and devotion in exchange for the implicit obedience and loyalty of the followers. When the public sees the level of influence Choi has exerted on many aspects of the government, they feel betrayed that the power entrusted to Park has been abused – shared with a third person outside the implicit contract – instead of used to benevolently care for the Korean people. This is precisely why the Korean public feels such a visceral sense of anger: their primal need for safety was violated at the highest levels of government.
The same neuroscience principle reveals that the fallout from this scandal might also jeopardise one of President Park’s most important initiatives – the Creative Economy. Park’s Creative Economy is designed to create jobs and increase the market potential for Korean companies by providing an ecosystem and infrastructure to foster innovation and creativity, especially in the IT industry.
Once an incoming neurological signal passes the safety test, it then must pass the connection test: can I nurture and connect with this person? Only after passing the safety and connection tests is the best part of our human brain, the frontal cortex which facilitates learning and innovation, unleashed (all of us conduct these tests instinctually, automatically and unconsciously). When Parks failed the safety and connection tests, she vastly decreased the ability of the Korean people to access the power of their frontal cortex and achieve innovation and creativity.
Given the developments to date, what is the best course of action? Firstly, I think it’s imperative Ms. Choi apologise for violating the implicit trust the Korean people granted President Park – this is not a matter of law but of reaching the hearts of the Korean people. It is not enough that she cooperates with the prosecutor office’s investigation. As a personal friend of 40 years to President Park, this seems to be the minimal logical step she needs to take to relieve the pressure on the President.
Secondly, President Park must publicly validate the anger and betrayal of trust the public feels. She must present a plan of action to restore consistent application of the intent of the Kim Young-ran Act to prevent advantages granted to only those with vested privileges. She must also restore a sense of safety and reassure the public she is solely devoted to the welfare of the Korean people as the mother of the country – and she must actually mean it, since our brainwaves will be extra sensitive to signals of insincerity or inconsistency. Once the public feels validated, a sense of safety is restored, and they are provided with a consistent demonstration of high ethical and moral standards, then Park must facilitate a sense of belonging and connection among Koreans as one people. Then, and only then, will the maximum potential of Park’s vision of the Creative Economy be fulfilled and for the growth and prosperity as one Korea.
This was first published in the Korea Times on November 17 2016.
Featured image courtesy: Alfredo Estrella, AFPAbout the Author
Dr. Sunnie Giles is a Korean-born executive coach and organizational consultant based out of the U.S. She has an MBA from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in systemic psychology from Brigham Young University. Visit sunniegiles.com for more information.