Public Sentiment and its Place in Modern Korea
In recent years, we have heard a lot in Korea about “public sentiment.” The phrase sounds gentle enough – like the addition of a soft layer of feeling to the idea of “public opinion.” But, actually, it is something altogether different.
If you were puzzled this year by both the justification for and the speed with which President Park Geun-hye was ousted, then you will find an explanation in public sentiment. If you were puzzled last year as to how a court could find executives in Korea for a certain foreign automaker who had translated advertisements about how nice their cars were and run them in Korean magazines guilty of criminality, the answer is public sentiment. If you wondered a few years back how the local head of an American fund could be jailed for five years for manipulating the share price of the bank it had bought when a) there was not a single piece of evidence and b) he wasn’t even in charge at the time, you can guess that public sentiment played a big role.
As such cases show, for the business person who finds his or her company savaged in the media, for the lawyer acting in its defense, for the politician or bureaucrat who helped it at some point, public sentiment is a tsunami that comes without warning.
But, for a people subject to authoritarian governance throughout their history, it represents the moral heart of Korean democracy.
Michael Breen came to Korea as a foreign correspondent and now works as a public relations executive advising companies on their communications with local and foreign media. He is the author of The Koreans and Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader. His latest book, The New Koreans, comes out in April.