South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday accused the country's media of damaging its alliance with the United States after a TV broadcaster released a video suggesting that he insulted U.S. Congress members following a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in New York last week.
MBC caught Yoon on tape talking to his aides and top diplomats following a brief chat with Biden on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly meetings. While the audio was unclear, Yoon could be heard using what seemed as indecent language during comments the broadcaster captioned as: "Wouldn't it be too darn embarrassing for Biden if those idiots at legislature don't approve?"
Yoon's meeting with Biden came after they both delivered speeches in support of the Global Fund, an international campaign to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. The Biden administration has pledged $6 billion in U.S. contributions to the initiative through 2025, but it's pending congressional approval. Yoon's government has promised $100 million.
After the MBC video roused the internet and triggered criticism from rival politicians decrying a "diplomatic disaster," Yoon's office belatedly denied the report hours later on Thursday, insisting that he wasn't talking about the U.S. Congress or Biden.
Kim Eun-hye, Yoon's spokesperson, said he was expressing concern that South Korea's opposition-controlled National Assembly could reject his plans for the $100 million contribution. She said the word MBC heard as Biden was actually "nal-li-myeon," an expression that can be used to describe something being thrown away. She didn't specifically address Yoon's apparent use of a word that could be translated as "idiots."
Talking to reporters in Seoul on Monday after wrapping up his trip in Canada, Yoon stuck with his office's version of the story. He said that the media could put South Korea's security in danger by "damaging the alliance with reports that differ from facts."
Yoon called for a need to find the "truth" behind the reports that described him as insulting U.S. lawmakers while leaders of his conservative People Power Party threatened to take action against MBC.
"MBC's actions have become difficult to just stand back and watch," said Joo Ho-young, the party's floor leader. "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-U.S. relations. But MBC skipped this verification process and aired the report with arbitrary and very provocative captions."
Other party lawmakers said they will demand MBC to broadcast an apology and for its current management to resign. They said they will also file complaints with the country's Press Arbitration Commission and broadcasting regulator and possibly damage suits against MBC.
MBC is one of the country's largest terrestrial channels. While the company operates on advertising revenue, its largest shareholder is a public organization whose chairperson is appointed by the government.
Lee Jong-bae, one of the People Power Party's members in the Seoul Metropolitan Council, filed a complaint against MBC to Seoul police, accusing the broadcaster of defamation and disrupting presidential duties.
The party spokesperson, Park Jung-ha, raised suspicion that MBC was aligned with members of the liberal opposition Democratic Party, which holds majority in South Korea's parliament, in a supposed attempt to rattle Yoon's government.
He questioned how the Democratic Party's floor leader, Park Hong-keun, was able to issue criticism about Yoon's "crude comments" half an hour before MBC first released the video on its YouTube channel.
In its statement, MBC described the accusations as an attack on media freedoms. It said the video was taken as part of pool coverage and was shared with other South Korean media covering Yoon's trip, triggering a debate between reporters and even presidential staff on what Yoon was saying. The footage had already appeared on social media before MBC released the captioned video on its YouTube channel, the broadcaster said.
MBC also said Yoon's office had requested journalists to refrain from reporting Yoon's comments, citing "diplomatic burdens," and that the journalists refused.
"First their logic was that it wouldn't serve national interests to report (Yoon's comments) that were made in private space, then they came out attacking, saying that the MBC report was untrue," MBC said. "They are trying to sacrifice one media outlet to escape criticism about the so-called 'indecent remarks,' and their vicious attacks amount to an attempt to control the media and suppress the media."
Lee Soo-jin, spokesperson of the Democratic Party, called for the conservatives to stop threatening the media and for Yoon to apologize over his "vulgar remarks."
Yoon and his party's harsh response to the MBC report comes as he faces criticism that he returned with underwhelming results from his foreign trip, which included the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, the U.N. meetings and a visit to Canada for a summit with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Much of the attention before the trip was about whether Yoon would meet Biden to discuss contentious bilateral issues, including South Korean frustrations over the recently passed U.S. Inflation Reduction Act that excludes South Korean electric vehicles and other models assembled outside of North America from consumer tax credits.
The liberal opposition labeled Yoon's diplomacy as a failure after his chat with Biden following their Global Fund speeches lasted less than a minute. Seoul's Foreign Ministry said Yoon still "sufficiently conveyed" South Korean concerns over the new law to Biden.
Yoon hasn't specifically addressed whether he described South Korean lawmakers as "idiots."
After his spokesperson told reporters that his comments were aimed at South Korean lawmakers, Yoon posted a Facebook message saying he hopes for "active cooperation" from the National Assembly over his contribution plans to the Global Fund.