September 27, 2022
SEOUL – In his first comments on his “hot mic” swearing gaffe in New York last week, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol claimed on Monday that the media had misquoted him and said such reporting of untruths could damage the country’s alliance with the United States and put people in danger.
Members of his political party have also threatened to sue one broadcaster for libelling the President.
A remark made last week by Mr Yoon on his way out from a short meeting with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly was caught on camera, stirring immense controversy and hurting his approval ratings.
Several international media had cited Mr Yoon as saying to one of his aides: “How could Biden not lose face if these f****** do not pass it in Congress?”
Reports had postulated that Mr Yoon was referring to the US Congress and the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act that would exclude Korean carmakers from US subsidies.
Mr Yoon’s office and ruling People Power Party (PPP) have since claimed that the audio recorded was not clear due to background noise and the President was misquoted.
A presidential spokesman said Mr Yoon made no mention of Mr Biden, and was instead using a similar-sounding Korean word that means to throw something out.
She denied that the President had even referred to the US Congress, and claimed he had said he would be embarrassed if South Korea’s opposition-controlled Parliament were to throw out his pledge to contribute US$100 million (S$143 million) to the Global Fund over the next three years.
A group of lawmakers from the PPP on Monday pledged to take legal action over the matter.
This would include filing a libel suit against South Korean broadcaster MBC, claiming that it released the video of Mr Yoon’s remark with subtitles that misrepresented what he said.
The lawmakers also demanded a public apology from MBC, saying that the TV station failed to verify Mr Yoon’s remarks before releasing the video.
MBC replied in a statement that the Yoon administration was “trying to sacrifice one media outlet to escape criticism”.
“Their vicious attacks amount to an attempt to control the media and suppress the media,” the broadcaster argued.
News of Mr Yoon using foul language – which remains undisputed – went viral and drew him swift brickbats, as did the series of denials from his side since last Thursday.
“The fact remains that Yoon was careless about opening his mouth in public places… the level of language was far below what’s required for a national leader,” The Korea Herald newspaper said in an editorial.
The saga has overshadowed the new leader and political novice’s diplomatic achievements, such as delivering his first speech at the United Nations and holding his first one-on-one meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) even called Mr Yoon’s seven-day trip to Britain, US and Canada a “diplomatic disaster” and sought the resignation of Foreign Minister Park Jin for mishandling the trip.
DP’s parliamentary leader Park Hong-geun accused the President of hiding the truth and not apologising.
The latest polls show that Mr Yoon’s approval ratings have fallen in the wake of the gaffe.
A Gallup Korea survey last Friday placed his approval rating at 28 per cent, down 5 percentage points from a week ago, while a separate study by Realmeter showed his approval rating fell from 36.4 per cent last Tuesday to 32.8 per cent last Friday.
The Korea Times newspaper urged Mr Yoon to apologise for using profanity “before it is too late”.
“His sincere apology is needed to prevent a further confrontation between the ruling and opposition camps and to restore the public’s trust,” the paper said.