By John Burton

This week was already expected to be an emotional one as the nation marks the first anniversary of the Sewol tragedy, which uncovered a nexus of corruption between government and industry in the maritime sector

Now public anger is likely to be stoked by another potentially damaging corruption scandal, with allegations that President Park Geun-hye’s top aides received illegal campaign contributions during her presidential bids in 2007 and 2012.

The tales of corruption have already taken their toll on the nation.

The profound psychological impact of the Sewol tragedy curtailed domestic spending as the public grieved last year, contributing to a slowing economy.

It also marked the beginning of the decline in public confidence in the Park administration.

It is sometimes difficult for foreigners to understand the trauma caused by the Sewol tragedy. Although it cost 300, mostly young, lives, I have had friends overseas ask, “Such tragic accidents happen all the time, why would this have such an enduring impact on Korea?”

There are several answers to that. One was the emotional immediacy of the tragedy as conveyed through TV coverage and social media

It was also the loss of precious young lives in a nation that is rapidly aging, reminding everyone of their own mortality.

Finally, the public saw a tardy and bumbling official response to the accident that undermined Korea’s belief in its ability to tackle challenges.

The result has been a nation gripped by uncertainty and lost confidence in not only President Park’s leadership, but in itself.

The greatest damage has been to President Park’s standing.

She was elected based on the belief among her supporters that she would exercise power in the same dynamic way as her father did when he ruled Korea in the 1960s and 1970s.

Instead, the Sewol tragedy revealed a leader that appears to be clueless.

She was accused of lacking empathy and being aloof when she did not immediately rush to meet the families of the victims, but sent two presidential aides instead.

Although she has since apologized for her actions, her credibility has been permanently damaged.

President Park promised to make Korea a safer country in the aftermath of the Sewol tragedy.

Some improvements were initially made in terms of maritime safety, but the follow-through has since faltered.

In the meantime, the country has been plagued by a series of other fatal accidents caused by safety lapses.

These are signs of an administration that appears to lack vision and commitment.

Now the administration is once again distracted by allegations of corruption. Following the “memogate” scandal that led to the loss of the several aides, including her chief of staff, she must confront developments that raise new questions about her ability to pick the right personnel in running the government.

The allegations made by the late head of Keangnam Enterprises about illegal political contributions to Park’s presidential campaigns have deeped public suspicions about the Park administration’s competence that were first raised by the Sewol tragedy.

President Park might be able to ride out the storm if she agrees to cooperate with a thorough investigation conducted by prosecutors.

But her behavior to date has done little to inspire confidence that she will do so.

Her actions regarding an investigation of the Sewol tragedy have led to complaints by the families of the victims that she is trying to manage the probe to avoid embarrassing the government.

She has also decided to leave for Latin America on a state visit today to avoid any protests that might mark the Sewol anniversary.

The combination of the Sewol tragedy, along with the latest scandal that raise renewed questions about President Park’s election in 2012, threatens to leave her without the total trust of the public and spell the end to any hope of achieving substantial progress during the rest of her term

President Park must come clean and avoid evading any responsibility when it comes to the Sewol tragedy and the scandal hitting her inner circle.

The nation expects no less.

This is a special column contributed by Korea Times columnist and former Financial Times correspondent John Burton. ?ED.

SOURCE: The Korea Times