South Korea’s president has been accused of causing a “diplomatic disaster” after his first major international trip, to the Queen’s funeral and the UN General Assembly, was marred by alleged rudeness and profanity directed at members of the US Congress.
Yoon Suk-yeol, a conservative already struggling with low approval ratings just months after taking office, drew criticism from across the South Korean political spectrum after failing to attend the queen’s state funeral despite traveling to London.
On Wednesday, he was then caught cursing after a conversation with Joe Biden on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly that reportedly lasted less than a minute.
Speaking as he left an event in New York, Yoon was caught on a “hot” microphone telling aides: “How can Biden not lose face if these fuckers don’t pass Congress?” – apparently in connection with Biden’s push to increase the US contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which would require congressional approval.
The footage quickly went viral in South Korea, with the YouTube video attracting more than 5 million views, while a Korean swear word allegedly uttered by Yoon trended on Twitter.
Opposition lawmakers quickly accused him of insulting the US, a key ally with about 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea, many of them along the border with nuclear-armed North Korea.
Park Hong-keun, of the opposition Democratic Party, which controls the national assembly, said Yoon’s outburst was a “slanderous diplomatic accident that seriously tarnished national dignity.”
Yoon’s press secretary, Kim Eun-hye, claimed the South Korean president was referring to his country’s national assembly, which will also vote on the Global Fund pledge. Yoon “had no reason to talk about the U.S. or say the word ‘Biden,'” Kim said, arguing that Yoon actually used a word that sounded similar to the American president’s name.
Social media users were not convinced. “It’s completely shameful and embarrassing for our children that our president’s office would come up with such an excuse,” wrote one YouTube commenter.
“I’ve listened to it 10 times already. That’s ‘Biden’ for sure,” said another.
Yoon’s comments drew criticism from members of his own People’s Power party, whose leader called the outburst “very unfortunate.”
Officials had hoped Yoon would use his appearance at the UN General Assembly to promote his vision for South Korea, including his plans to address North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear tests.
Democratic Party MPs accused him of “degrading national prestige” after he failed to attend the Queen’s first day’s casting in London on Sunday.
His office blamed heavy traffic for his absence, although other foreign guests, including French President Emmanuel Macron, chose to walk to Westminster Hall, where the Queen lay in state for the ceremony.
Critics said Yoon, who has been accused in the past of acting on the advice of a shaman, had proved diplomatically inept after failing to hold meaningful talks with Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
Yoon and Biden planned informal talks in New York, but ended up having a 48-second conversation at the Global Fund. Yoon’s office said the meeting was a “plan B” due to changes in Biden’s schedule.
Controversy erupted earlier after Japanese media reported that Kishida considered canceling a meeting with Yoon after South Korean officials leaked information about the summit before it took place.
An official in Yoon’s office said there was a “difference of opinion” over the timing of the talk announcement.
Polls show the debacle has hurt Yoon, who took office in May, with a Gallup poll released Friday showing his approval rating falling to 28% from 33% last week.