Our second in a series on Korean science and technology. Brought to you in partnership with Epi.
Where to begin. Before I dive in, I would like to make a personal confession. As an avid supporter of the Moon Jae-in administration’s pledge on energy transition, I’m disappointed by the decision to resume the construction of reactors 5 and 6 of the Shin-Kori nuclear power plant. To be frank: it is ridiculous. Despite all the advocacy for energy transition by the Moon administration, it looks like the number of nuclear reactors in Korea is set to increase.
Yet it doesn’t feel right to simply complain. For a long time, I’ve asserted the importance of paying attention to public opinion while making policies related to science and technology. To this end, I’ve participated in civic movements and—in my role as a reporter—written articles about these issues. So I feel conflicted about the experiment to leave the decision on Shin-Kori 5 and 6 to the general public, and about the result.
First, we need to dispel a misconception. While President Moon may have had good intentions in delegating the decision to a group of 471 Korean citizens “in their 20s to 80s from all across the country”, his actions were nevertheless also a call to bring the Shin-Kori controversy to an end.
And there are two errors with this approach. Contrary to what many believe, democracy is not a panacea. Whether direct, representative, or deliberative, the process of democracy itself does not guarantee the best results.
Similarly, democratic decision-making always carries the possibility of mistakes. This is the reason “respect for the opinion of the minority” invariably comes up in lessons on democracy. Over time, even in a deliberative democracy, the assertion of the minority rather than that of the majority may turn out to be the right choice.
There is one more thing I would like to mention. Democracy is, by nature, a cacophony. If you want quiet, conflict-free decision making, dictatorship is the best option. Democracy involves conflict and debate among people with different opinions and even the risk of chaos.
In a way, deliberative democracy incites and amplifies conflict, since it allows citizens to participate in disagreements between direct stakeholders, experts, politicians, and bureaucrats and to debate the issues. Therefore it would be a critical misunderstanding to focus only on ‘conflict resolution’ when talking about the processes of deliberative democracy.
This is one of my reasons for writing this piece. I believe that the more Korean society discusses the manner in which the Shin-Kori issue was opened up for public debate, the deeper our understanding of democracy itself will grow. Moreover, in doing so we will identify plausible ways to bring about energy transition during the Moon administration.
Representative democracy vs. deliberative democracy
From a broad perspective, the inclusion of the general public in this debate lines up with the many participatory models of citizenship put forward by other countries as ‘remedies to representative democracy’. The reason I put quotation marks around that phrase is that a closer examination of the relationship between deliberative democracy and representative democracy reveals a serious problem in the way the public was brought into the Shin-Kori 5 and 6 debate.
As we know, the Republic of Korea is a representative democracy. The key agents of a representative democracy are groups that prioritize themselves and the political parties that are directly or indirectly related to them. For instance, as was clearly revealed in this debate, there is an alliance of so-called ‘nuclear mafia’ in Korea which spans industries, academia, media, and regions and whose interests align with those of nuclear power plants.
On the other side is a network of mainly environmental groups that pursue energy transition. For whatever reason, President Moon Jae-in and the Democratic Party entered into a loose alliance with this ‘energy transition network’, pledged to “stop the construction of Shin-Kori 5 and 6”, and then won the election. The opposing political forces, led by conservative parties, aligned themselves with the ‘nuclear mafia’.
In a country where representative democracy works properly, after a politician and party have made a policy pledge in order to obtain support, it is only natural that they then implement the policies when they win election. This is why President Obama launched Obamacare to enroll all US citizens in the national health insurance scheme despite numerous obstacles and why President Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement amid strong opposition.
However, President Moon Jae-in overturned his pledge and, out of the blue, asked citizens to decide. By doing so, he failed in his responsibility to make a decision as a leader of a representative democracy, a leader whose power is granted by the people. And neither the National Assembly nor any of the political parties, including the Democratic Party, took any action. The way the issue of Shin-Kori 5 and 6 was made public therefore demonstrates the weakness of our representative democracy.
An old frame and a wrong question
Now that we’ve looked at representative democracy, let’s examine deliberative democracy. Countries around the world have for many years experimented with citizen consensus councils and citizens’ juries, where citizens participate in the process of decision-making for science and technology policies. Starting in the late 1990s, Korea also began to consider and implement such practices in citizen science centers.
One important point to note is these citizen councils and juries tend to focus on the acceptance of new science and technology. Genetically modified organisms, cloning, and xenotransplantation are usually the main topics. These topics have two things in common. Despite the future impact of these technologies, 1) public interest and understanding is lacking, and 2) there are few stakeholders.
Now, compare these topics with the construction of Shin-Kori 5 and 6. First, there are powerful stakeholders involved: Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, construction companies affiliated with conglomerates, local residents who have received compensation, nuclear industry employees, academics who study nuclear power, high-ranking bureaucrats who were appointed due to experience with nuclear power plants, and politicians who are against energy transition.
And there are two influential non-human agents that many people tend to disregard: Shin-Kori 5 and 6 themselves. The fact that the reactors were at least 20 percent complete at the time of the consultation led to most citizens nodding along with the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ promulgated by the nuclear industry and conservative media. During the public discourse on the construction of the two reactors, nuclear industry officials repeated the sunk cost fallacy numerous times. Yet instead of correcting the error, most of the media expanded and reproduced it instead.
Imagine paying 10,000 won to see a movie and then 30 minutes in realizing that the film isn’t to your taste. Should you stop watching and leave the theater, or should you stay and watch to the end? Watching until the end is an example of a sunk cost fallacy.
Psychologist Richard Nisbett said, “Nothing that happened yesterday can be retrieved. No use crying over spilt milk. Only the future costs and benefits should affect your decision. You shouldn’t use more money to cover losses. At its worst, in the public arena, this fallacy has not infrequently been used as justification for continuing wars—so that the fallen won’t have died in vain.”
And what of the public interest and understanding? Most of the 471 citizens who participated in the decision to halt or continue the construction of Shin-Kori 5 and 6 had learned through schools, media, and government messaging over several decades that “nuclear power plants are the future of energy”. It was not the case that they did not have understanding or interest in nuclear power plants. In fact, they were heavily biased because they’d only heard one side of the story.
If we take the findings of cognitive science into account, which point to the difficulty of changing worldviews that have been shaped over many years, a one-month public inquiry into the Shin-Kori issues was never going to reach a meaningful conclusion. Moreover, according to one official the proposal to “hold two discussion sessions by bringing the citizens together for several days” was not accepted due to the ten-day Chuseok holidays.
And there was another problem. In designing the questionnaire given to the 471 citizens, the Public Engagement Commission included questions concerning both the ‘construction of Shin-Kori 5 and 6’ and the ‘direction of the Moon Jae-in administration’s energy transition (nuclear phase-out) policy’. Professor Ko Haksoo of Seoul National University criticized the Public Engagement Commission’s survey for introducing the risk of ‘extremeness aversion’, a term from behavioral economics. Indeed, the majority of decision-making demonstrated a tendency to avoid choosing options at either extreme.
As could have been predicted, most of the 471 citizens chose the contradictory combination of ‘resuming the construction of Shin-Kori 5 and 6’ and ‘supporting the energy transition policy’. In doing so, the citizens expressed agreement with the Moon Jae-in administration’s energy transition while—to borrow the expression of one citizen who participated in the public engagement process—also satisfying “desperate” stakeholders such as the nuclear industry. The sunk cost fallacy also played its part.
Three keywords of frustrating response: misinterpretation, overconfidence, and carelessness
In a situation where a frustrating conclusion was to be expected, the response of those who wanted to bring an end to the construction of Shin-Kori 5 and 6—the ‘energy transition network’—was also lacking. Their response can be summed up in three words: misinterpretation, overconfidence, and carelessness.
First, the network misinterpreted the Moon Jae-in administration’s willingness to bring about energy transition. Therefore while it was unhappy with the administration’s proposal to seek the opinions of citizens, the network felt obligated to participate in the debate. One environmental activist explained, “We thought the government’s purpose in the process was to obtain justification for suspending construction of Shin-Kori 5 and 6.”
Second, the members of the ‘energy transition network’ were overconfident in their ability to engage with and win citizens over to their side. This optimism was based on the nuclear industry being authoritarian, non-communicative with citizens, and permanently corrupted by several decades of all manner of special treatment and benefits.
The overconfidence bred carelessness. The three-night, two-day discussions revealed just how unprepared the network was. Compared to the extremely well organized nuclear industry—you can’t help but wonder if it paid hundreds of millions of won to advertising companies—the ‘energy transition network’ was all over the place in its responses.
In the end, rather than winning the citizens over, the network managed only to push them away. According to Kim Hee-kyung, an attorney who witnessed the public engagement process, some of the citizens at the discussion responded with complaints like “How come the experts don’t engage in the debate with respect for the other side, even while telling us to do exactly that?” and “One of the experts was really aggressive during the Q&A session. I was on their side, so it was even harder to take.”
That most criticism was directed at the ‘energy transition network’ makes sense. It probably wasn’t easy for its members to feign respect for opponents they perceived as enemies that the world needed rid of. And it is highly likely that the network’s hostility registered as rude and repulsive with citizens at the debate, many of whom lacked the necessary context.
The network made another error in its persuasion strategy. While those that argued for the resumption of construction made use of the sunk cost fallacy and demonstrated a concrete interest in people who made a living from Shin-Kori 5 and 6, the ‘energy transition network’ presented only an abstract picture of the future.
To support its arguments, the network used the considerable achievements of other countries as examples. Unfortunately, some citizens were annoyed at such presentations—“Why do they keep talking about foreign countries?”
This reminds me of another concept from behavioral economics: ‘loss aversion’. Generally, the majority of people will choose a small but certain profit over the possibility of a greater future profit. Although both sides talked about the livelihoods of those involved with the nuclear power plant, one side focused on “current losses” while the other went on about “future benefits”. And the result was obvious.
Speculation and prospects of a new “network of interest groups”
People who have a narrow understanding of deliberative democracy believe that rational agents will make the most reasonable decision when provided with balanced information. However, as we examined above, decision-makers are prone to errors (sunk cost fallacy) or bias (extremeness aversion, loss aversion), and information can also be biased. Rational decision-making is never easy.
Some skeptics see deliberative democracy as a tool used to justify the dominant values (or ‘common sense’) of an era. And I would say this applies not only to deliberative democracy. Any form of democracy premised on the existence of an ideal public is essentially impossible, and likely to fall into the abyss of totalitarianism.
Political scientist Chantal Mouffe emphasizes such points and proposes that we look at our lives as spaces where opposing powers acknowledge each other and seek coexistence. In this context, one of the most noteworthy points in the public engagement process was the consistency of the interest groups—including the nuclear industry—that argued for the resumption of construction. A network of interest groups that enable such a well-organized response is very important.
People whose livelihoods depend on nuclear power plants such as Shin Kori-5 and 6 had nowhere to retreat to in the public engagement process. As I mentioned while describing the two-night, three-day discussion, their plight was the biggest factor in winning over the majority of citizens. For the opposing side, which was unable to come up with a rebuttal, the most serious issue was the lack of a similarly broad network of interest groups.
What if Seoul National University or KAIST offered majors in studying renewable energy and fostering industrial personnel? What if renewable energy was covered positively in textbooks and students went on field trips to wind farms rather than nuclear power plants? What if candidates with experience in renewable energy were preferred for high-ranking jobs at the Ministry of Science and ICT? For your information, the official in charge of nuclear power plants was selected because of his experience with nuclear power plants.
Furthermore, what if most of the top ten chaebol included wind and solar energy projects in their portfolios? What if the renewable industries had vastly more employees than nuclear industries? What if there were more citizens whose interests were aligned with renewable energy industries than with the nuclear power industry? What if so many individual and corporate investors ended up following the stock of renewable energy industries that even conservative media had to stop the belittling?
Had there been a broader network of interest groups, the outcome of the consultation would have been extremely different. Actually, the Moon Jae-in administration would have kept its pre-election promise and not shifted its responsibility to the citizens in the first place. As it was, however, the imbalance inevitably limited the discussion.
Let me emphasize once more that the only solution that will enable irreversible energy transition is the creation of a new, broader interest group network. There are things we can do right away. First, we need to scale down the huge government budget for nuclear energy research, facilities development, and industry support. Along the same lines, the government should also shut down nuclear energy promotion organizations, such as the Korea Energy Information Culture Agency, which has no reason to exist, or change them into something like a Renewable Energy Foundation. The Moon Jae-in administration taking these two steps would greatly support the establishment of a network for the supporters of energy transition.
Above all, through the public engagement process concerning Shin-Kori 5 and 6, the nuclear industry has clearly proven that it does not require government support to do well. Why, then, do we need to waste taxpayers’ money on an industry that is fully self-sufficient? It would be enough for citizens to cheer on from the sidelines while Korea’s self-proclaimed “world’s best nuclear industry” competes in the marketplace on its own.