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PoliticsSouth Korea

South Korea's president denies hot mic gaffe

September 26, 2022

The opposition accused President Yoon Suk Yeol of insulting Joe Biden and disgracing South Korea. Yoon said media reports could damage the country's alliance with the US.

Yoon Suk Yeol answering questions a press conference
Yoon Suk Yeol returned to Seoul on Monday to face a days-long political controversyImage: Yonhap/picture alliance

South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol has accused the country's media of damaging its alliance with the United States after a television channel broadcast a hot mic gaffe at last week's United Nations General Assembly in New York City.

In one of several controversies during the new president's first major overseas trip, a South Korean TV channel caught Yoon swearing on a hot mic and — according  to media reports — insulting members of the US Congress after a short chat with President Joe Biden on Wednesday.

On Monday, amid continued fallout from the recording, Yoon said the reports were "untrue" and they had the potential to damage South Korea's military alliance with the US, putting the country at risk.

What did Yoon say?

Yoon, Biden and other leaders had delivered speeches in support of the Global Fund, an international campaign to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. The Biden administration has pledged a $6 billion (€6.2 billion) contribution, pending the approval of the US Congress.

Afterwards, South Korean broadcaster MBC caught Yoon on tape talking to one of his aides in the margins of the UN General Assembly meetings.

"Wouldn't it be too darn embarrassing for Biden if those idiots at legislature don't approve?'' the South Korean president reportedly told his aide.

Afterwards, presidential spokesperson Kim Eun-hye said Yoon was actually talking about South Korea's own National Assembly, which is controlled by the opposition Democratic Party.

Yoon Suk Yeol talking with Joe Biden at the United Nations General Assembly
Yoon Suk Yeol's comments came after he and Joe Biden spoke in support of the Global FundImage: Yonhap/picture alliance

Kim said the word that MBC interpreted as "Biden" was actually "nal-li-myeon" — a Korean expression that can be used to describe something being thrown away.

She did not address Yoon's apparent use of a word that could be translated as "idiots" or "bastards."

The fallout in South Korea

After footage quickly spread in South Korean media and online, the opposition Democratic Party called for Yoon to apologize over the gaffe and to sack his national security advisor and foreign minister. Opposition lawmakers said the "diplomatic disaster" insulted Biden and disgraced South Korea.

Yoon hit back when he returned to Seoul on Monday.

"Well, rather than a controversy, I will say this: Except for one or two or three superpowers in the world, no country can fully protect the lives and safety of its people with its own capabilities," the president told reporters when asked about the hot mic incident.

"I'd like to say that damaging the alliance with reports that are different from the facts puts the people at great risk."

Broadcaster under fire

Some members of Yoon's party have demanded that MBC broadcaster air an apology, and have lodged complaints with media regulators. Others have accused the channel of being aligned with the opposition.

"If [Yoon] used a word about the United States as described in the initial MBC report, that would have required thorough fact checking considering the consequences to South Korea-US relations," said Joo Ho-young, the government's floor leader. "But MBC skipped this verification process and aired the report with arbitrary and very provocative captions.''

MBC said the government's "vicious attacks amount to an attempt to control the media."

The broadcaster said the footage was taken by the press pool, and added that it had already appeared on social media before a captioned version was uploaded to its YouTube channel.

zc/dj (AP, Reuters)