On Thursday, South Korea’s ruling People Power Party (PPP) filed complaints seeking the prosecution of four members of MBC, one of the country’s biggest broadcasting companies. The four are the reporter who covered Yoon’s hot mic scandal last week, along with three high-ranking officials who are in charge of news reporting. All are being accused by the PPP of defamation against President Yoon Suk-yeol.
On September 21, Yoon had a 48-second chat with U.S. President Joe Biden in New York at the Global Fund’s Seventh Replenishment event. After speaking with Biden, Yoon, on his way out of the event, used inappropriate words that were caught by one of the South Korean video journalists.
“What if the bastards in parliament do not approve… Biden would be embarrassed,” Yoon apparently said.
At the event, Biden had pledged to “donate $1 billion for every $2 billion committed by the rest of the world” to fight “AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.” Yoon also pledged to provide $1 billion as part of this initiative.
In this context, many interpreted Yoon’s words to mean that he was worried about Biden being embarrassed if the U.S. Congress did not approve the funds to carry out his pledge.
More than ten hours after the video capturing Yoon’s inappropriate words was released, Kim Eun-hye, a senior secretary for press affairs, said that Yoon had used the word “nallimyun” (meaning “scrap” in English), not “Biden.” She also said that the “bastards” Yoon referred to meant the opposition Democratic Party, not the U.S. Congress. Kim assured reporters that her explanation came after Yoon’s direct confirmation of his words.
Under this explanation, however, Yoon’s words do not match clearly and grammatically. In English, his remarks would be: “What if parliament does not approve (and) scrap… would be embarrassed.”
Since then, a national hearing test has begun as everyone scrambles to interpret the recording. While the main PPP members who are in Yoon’s inner circle claimed that “nallimyun” is the word he used, the opposition Democratic Party and some senior PPP members said the president clearly indicated “Biden.”
However, the Presidential Office has not expressed any regret about Yoon’s use of a curse word at the public event. The office says the swear word is not the main point of the scandal; it is more concerned with denying that Yoon was referring to Biden.
South Koreans are getting used to Yoon saying “bastards” as he was accused of using the same word toward Lee Jun-seok, the ousted PPP leader, and his staff member during the presidential campaign.
In order to prevent Yoon from being the first South Korean president caught publicly insulting a U.S. president and the U.S. Congress, the Presidential Office and PPP have actively defended Yoon on the frontline. However, the scandal has raged on as Yoon and his chief of staff clearly are not willing to accept responsibility. Yoon himself has not apologized or expressed his regret over the scandal for more than a week.
On Monday, in his first “door-stepping” exchange with reporters on his way to work after his trip to London and New York, Yoon did not apologize for his remarks but instead claimed that the untrue media reports damaged the alliance between South Korea and the United States. However, Yoon denied that he had mentioned Biden, although he did not offer an alternative explanation.
Hours after Yoon accused the media of fake news reports, the Presidential Office sent an official letter to MBC with many specific questions over how it came to write a transcript of Yoon’s hot mic moment. Almost every news media – foreign and domestic – used a similar, if not identical, transcript of Yoon’s comments in their news reports but only MBC, the first media to report on the scandal, has been scapegoated by the Presidential Office.
In a statement, MBC expressed regrets and concerns over the Presidential Office’s demand for details on its editorial process. It said that such an action can be seen as “a threatening act for the freedom of press.”
Following up on Yoon’s request to probe how could the media report “fake news” about his words, the PPP has launched a task force to prepare for a legal battle with MBC. Members of the task force visited the headquarters of MBC in Seoul on Thursday to complain about its reporting. However, they failed to enter the building due to the resistance of MBC employees at the site.
The Presidential Office is claiming that the entire scandal was manufactured by MBC’s fabricated transcript; it also claims that the untrue news reports damaged the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Under these premises, the Presidential Office is also considering suing MBC before the Press Arbitration Commission and filing a civil lawsuit again it, according to media reports.
The Presidential Office said that unnamed voice analysts confirmed that Yoon used the word “nallimyun” but has not shared any details of the analysis.
Media outlets have posted many clips of his hot mic moment so that South Koreans can judge for themselves. And many believe that there is no issue with the original transcript offered MBC.
According to polls released this week, nearly 62 percent of South Koreans said “Biden” was the word Yoon used, while about 27 percent said they heard “nallimyun.” With this, 75 percent of South Koreans said that the Presidential Office and PPP’s handling of the scandal is inappropriate while just 20 percent supported them.
In the light of the previous military regime’s suppression of the press in the 1980s, the Presidential Office’s request to get details of the media’s coverage has been highly criticized by the public.
Adding to the scandal, South Korean media confirmed that officials working at the external affairs division in Yoon’s Presidential Office did not originally deny the president’s phrasing. Instead, they acknowledged the video but asked journalists who were covering Yoon’s trip in New York not to report on the clip. MBC refused to accept the request and became the first media outlet to report on the comment. Minutes after MBC’s report, other media outlets also reported Yoon’s hot mic scandal.
For the first ten hours after the reports went live, officials did not deny that Yoon referred to Biden in his remarks but defended it as “a private talk” with Yoon’s aides. No one questioned the press reports and transcripts until Kim, the senior secretary for press affairs, publicly asserted that Yoon had said “nallimyun” and not “Biden.”
Apparently, Yoon, who used the Korean word for “freedom” 21 times in his speech at the U.N. General Assembly, is now clamping down on the freedom of press. Considering his background as a prosecutor general before being elected as president, the PPP’s threats toward MBC sounds more provocative.