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 discourtesy and an expletive directed at members of the US congress.
Yoon Suk-yeol, a conservative who was already battling low approval ratings only months after taking office, drew criticism from across the South Korean political spectrum after he failed to attend the Queen’s lying in state despite traveling to London.
On Wednesday, he was then caught swearing after a chat 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 by a “hot” microphone saying to aides: “How could Biden not lose face if these fuckers do not pass it in Congress?” – apparently in reference to 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 a YouTube video attracting more than 5m views, while the Korean expletive Yoon reportedly uttered was trending on Twitter.
Opposition MPs were quick to accuse 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 had been referring to his own country’s national assembly, which will also vote on a Global Fund pledge. Yoon had “no reason to talk about the US or utter the word ‘Biden’,” Kim said, claiming that Yoon had in fact used a word that sounded similar to the US president’s name.
Social media users were not convinced. “It is utterly shameful and embarrassing for our kids that our presidential office has come up with such an excuse,” one commentator wrote on YouTube.
“I’ve listened to it 10 times now. It’s ‘Biden’ for sure,” another said.
Yoon’s comments sparked criticism from members of his own People Power party, whose floor leader called the outburst “greatly regrettable”.
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 Korean ballistic missile and nuclear tests.
Democratic party MPs accused him of “demeaning national prestige” after failing to observe the Queen’s lying in state on his first day in London on Sunday.
His office blamed heavy traffic for his absence, even though other foreign guests, including the French president, Emmanuel Macron, elected to walk to Westminster Hall, where the Queen lay in state.
Critics said Yoon, who in the past has been accused of acting on the advice of a shaman, had shown himself to be diplomatically inept after failing to hold substantive discussions with Biden and the Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida.
Yoon and Biden had planned informal talks in New York, but ended up having a 48-second chat at the Global Fund. Yoon’s office said the encounter was a “plan B” due to changes in Biden’s schedule.
Earlier, controversy erupted after Japanese media reported Kishida had considered cancelling a meeting with Yoon after South Korean officials leaked information about the summit before it had taken place.
An official at Yoon’s office said there was a “disparity in opinions” over the timing of the announcement of the talks.
Polls indicate the debacles have damaged Yoon, who took office in May, with a Gallup survey released on Friday showing his approval rating had dropped to 28% from 33% last week.