Contrition in a crisis brings out truth

Upheavals like a pandemic or political polarization often force humility in leaders. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un may be an example.

AP
A man in South Korea watches a Jan. 11 broadcast of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un admitting mistakes in economic leadership.

In North Korea, where inventing foreign enemies has helped keep three generations of Kims in power, the current dictator, Kim Jong Un, displayed a moment of contrition last week. He opened a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party by admitting he has had to learn “painful lessons” in leadership. Over the past five years, he said, the economy has “immensely underachieved.” He acknowledged mistakes that could not be tied to any foreign foe.

Humility is rare among national leaders, especially dictators who claim infallibility and threaten neighbors with nuclear weapons. Yet when such self-reflection occurs, it not only commands attention but sometimes deserves forgiveness. As the COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread damage, more leaders may be recognizing that an admission of mistakes is not seen as a sign of weakness. It might even be a sign of strength.

Last year, for example, the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, apologized to Italy for Europe’s failure to support the Italian health system when it was overwhelmed by the coronavirus. Her apology helped unify the Continent’s response to the crisis.

In the United States last month, Army Gen. Gustave Perna, who is in charge of distributing COVID-19 vaccines to the states, apologized for a shortfall of deliveries. “‘I know that’s not done much these days. But I am responsible,” he said. His contrition has perhaps allowed other officials to own up to their mistakes in the rollout of the vaccine.

When a government leader fails and then apologizes, the public is usually divided on how to react, writes Everett Worthington, professor emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University. Yet at a time of great upheaval and political polarization in the U.S., forgiveness is needed.

“Political opponents are often hateful, critical, and cruel with a justification that they are merely telling the truth to their political backers. But contempt for an opponent is easily detected by others who support the target of contempt,” he states in a paper for the John Templeton Foundation. “This breeds a divisive spirit within the public square ... and the results of ill feeling and civic division will cascade amid the general population.”

In his own admission of responsibility, North Korea’s leader did not ask for forgiveness. But Mr. Kim did skip his usual Jan. 1 address this year and instead released a handwritten letter that gave thanks to “the people” for their trust “in the difficult times.” Even one of the most feared and disliked people in the world understands the need to be humble. Only when genuine humility takes root can a wrong be put in the past and all things become new.

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