April 7, 2011. While people directly and indirectly affected by the devastating Japanese earthquake last month continued to suffer, the first smatterings of radioactive spring rain finally arrived on Korean soil. The panicked reactions of some media outlets notwithstanding, many experts agreed that for the time being, radioactive iodine-131 and cesium-137 levels in the rainwater were low enough to be virtually harmless. Any possibilities to the contrary, if feasible at all, remain to be seen. Meanwhile, the Japanese government suddenly announced on April 4 that Tokyo Electric Power Company - the company that operated the Fukushima Power Plant – had begun releasing over 11,500 tons of radioactive water used to cool the fuel rods into the Pacific Ocean.
It must be said that this is a severe lapse in judgment on the part of the Japanese authorities. The water released is about 100 times more radioactive than Japanese regulations permit. Although all this might be considered understandable given the current desperate circumstances, the decision of Prime Minister Naoto Kan not to alert neighboring countries to the release until the last minute (despite apparently having thoroughly cross-checked his approach with U.S. and French authorities) nonetheless is indeed a blatant diplomatic offence. Japan’s government must have realized that the release of radioactive contamination into the North Pacific may affect not just America, but all of Japan’s neighbors including China, Korea and Russia. If, as some research seems to indicate, there indeed are no serious repercussions, the Japanese government nevertheless should have done its best to allay related fears. All in all, this irresponsible behavior, coupled with the reemergence of the sensitive Dokdo topic, seems to have already chilled South Korean enthusiasm to donate to stricken quake victims.
It seems, though, that such fudge-ups were not unique to the Japanese government in the past few weeks. South Korean authorities, in striking parallel with their Japanese counterparts, have hardly blinked an eye since the start of the nuclear crisis, amid rising public concerns over radioactive fallout and radioactive seafood, citing “the influence of westerly winds in clearing radioactive materials from the vicinity.” Such overconfidence stands in stark contrast to the fact that there have hardly been any significant exchanges between Japan and Korea on the exact nature of the nuclear crisis. As such it is highly doubtful that the Korean authorities have a clue as to what they are up against, let alone what they should do about it. Despite, as mentioned before, uncertainties about the severity of radioactive effects - and most research, again as mentioned, indicates that effects are likely to be small - the government should at least provide reliable data to allay public fears, while preparing for the worst-case scenario.
This “nuclear scare” comes in a long line of public panic attacks resulting from distrust of the government. In 2008, changes in regulations concerning the import of American beef caused widespread protests in Seoul and outside of it, stoked by (but not solely caused by) fears of mad cow disease transmission through the meat. Likewise, in 2010, a certain portion of the populace reacted with skepticism to government explanations about the “North Korean attack” on the South Korean Navy Corvette ROKS Cheonan. Although such fears have sometimes been unnecessary exaggerations of fact, they all do point to one thing: South Koreans do not trust government reports. Although one can go into the details of how and why this suspicion of authority came about, one thing is for certain. Unless the Korean government, all its related agencies and establishments spell out what is happening clearly to the people, there is no guarantee that what is happening in some parts of Japan will not happen here: breakdown, or rather, meltdown of government-imposed order.