President-elect's entertainment show appearance causes much a-Yoon about nothing
Korean president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s appearance on tvN’s “You Quiz on the Block” was supposed to be just another episode of an entertainment show featuring a politician. But after it aired on April 20, several disputes — ranging from emcee Yu Jae-seok's attitude to allegations that the show previously declined to feature President Moon Jae-in — stirred up the nation. The backlash highlights the highly politicized and divided status quo of the Korean public following March’s presidential election.
“You Quiz on the Block” originally started in 2018 as a talk show and saw comedians Yu Jae-seok and Jo Se-ho strike up conversations with ordinary citizens on the street. After the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, the show changed its format to film indoors, inviting mostly ordinary people with special stories or occupations to guest star on each episode. As well as normal citizens, celebrities and star athletes were also featured.
When it was announced on April 13 that President-elect Yoon would appear, thousands of posts were made on the show’s website objecting the move. The controversy only escalated after the episode aired on April 20, as it turned out to be much shorter and more solemn than usual. Yu — initially condemned by Yoon’s opponents for having Yoon on the program — became a target of criticism from Yoon’s supporters who claimed the emcee was cold and unfriendly toward the president-elect.
“This was sudden... we do feel flustered; We do feel quite pressured, and a lot of other factors,” Yu said during the episode, but with a smile and upbeat tone of voice. Some pointed out that the editing was unamicable, with captions such as “[the studio is] silent compared to usual” and “why are none of the staff laughing?” Some defend that the editing or Yu’s alleged change in attitude was simply an attempt to be respectful with the president elect.
Along with accusations from President Moon Jae-in’s protocol secretary Tak Hyun-min that “You Quiz on the Block” declined an appearance from Moon on the show last year — which the channel has denied — the show has found itself at the center of a full-blown political controversy.
Since Yu is well-known among foreign fans of Korean content, many non-Koreans have become aware of the debacle and were taken aback by the sheer intensity of criticism Yu is facing.
What went wrong? Some think that having a politician on an entertainment show is wrong because it can politicize the show or be used as a propaganda tool. But that criticism seems to be misguided, considering the fact that politicians on entertainment shows is nothing new in Korea. Former presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Park Geun-hye appeared on such shows since the early 2000s to show their relatable sides, as did the recent presidential candidates Lee Jae-myung, Sim Sang-jung and Ahn Cheol-soo.
A politician facing backlash for simply being on an entertainment show is in fact unheard of, but Yoon’s president elect status may be what makes this case different.
“Most politicians were on those shows to display an easy-going image when they were still candidates,” said commentator Rhee Jong-hoon. Prior to the presidential election campaign. Sim appeared on SBS’s “My Little Old Boy” in 2019 as a National Assembly Rep. and Lee on SBS’s “Three Meals a Day” in 2017 as the mayor of Seongnam, Gyeonggi. “You Quiz on the Block” also had National Assembly representatives Kim Yea-ji and Pyo Changwon — although they appeared respectively as a vision-impaired pianist and criminal profiler rather than as politicians.
“A president elect, who is practically the president set to be inaugurated very soon, on an entertainment show is unprecedented,” Rhee continued. “Some question why Yoon is on such show after the election is over, when there’s no longer a need to promote himself. So they accuse him of trying to embellish his public image through the program. Well, it’s true. Of course politicians appear on entertainment shows to improve their image. We can’t call that wrong.”
Yoon already needs to improve his image after sparking heated debates before even being inaugurated. His decision to move the presidential office from the Blue House in central Seoul’s Jung District to Yongsan District with taxpayer money and calls to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family have led many to perceive him as authoritative. Among those skeptical of Yoon, him joking to Yu “Isn’t it an honor to have me here?” and “Maybe I shouldn’t have come here” was condemned as arrogant.
“Yoon’s been seeing rather low approval ratings since the election because of a number of debatable issues, which made him seem unwilling to communicate with the people,” Rhee said. “I’m sure Yoon wants to redeem himself and start his term with more approval. Being on ‘You Quiz on the Block’ was part of that effort, but I don’t think he came off as relatable in this episode to make up for all that’s happened. His supporters like him for his stern, man-of-principle image anyway, so they’re probably also thinking 'this isn’t really what we asked for.’”
The leading opinion from the public is that the episode was simply unentertaining. Regardless of politics, Yoon didn’t share any new information about himself or show a different side of his personality. The reaction is a stark contrast from the largely positive response Yoon saw last September after he appeared on SBS’s “Master in the House” when he showed off his cooking skills at his home and shared stories from his younger law student days, showing off a more human side to himself that contrasted with his stern image as a prosecutor.
“I didn’t vote for Yoon, and I’ll just say I disagree with him on most things,” said a 27-year-old graduate student who wished to identify herself by her surname Moon. “Even I found the backlash nonsensical because we can’t ban people from TV just because we dislike them, although I didn’t like the thought of Yoon trying to act down-to-earth and sound relatable. The controversy regarding the episode turned out to be a lot more interesting than the episode itself. I have no particular feelings — it was just dull.”
A more fundamental reason behind the backlash most likely lies in how Yoon won the election and became president-elect. While elections are always a fist-clenching event for Koreans, the 20th presidential race had an unprecedentedly razor-thin margin; Yoon earned 48.56 percent of votes and runner-up Lee Jae-myung earned 47.83 percent. There were more invalid ballots (307,542) than the difference in votes for Yoon and Lee (247,077). For perspective, President Moon received 41.08 percent votes in 2017 while the runner-up received 24.03 percent.
“If one candidate won by a landslide, this controversy probably wouldn’t have happened,” said political commentator Lee Kang-yun. “The election was so close that the anger and despondency [among those who did not vote for Yoon] still lingers. Overheated emotions from the March election and Korean politics in general over the past few years have led everything to be highly politicized. When something seems remotely political, people divide sides and attack anything that seems to not be on their side. We’ve grown familiar to this, but it’s a very unfortunate culture to have created.”
Allegations about whether the show really did decline President Moon, or whether President-elect Yoon pressured the channel into having him on, remain unconfirmed. However, it is unclear what exactly either side has to gain even if their claims turn out to be true.
“It’s becoming a bigger and bigger issue but no one seems to really know why it’s an issue in the first place,” commentator Lee added.
“Unless Yoon coerced the producers, there was nothing wrong with his appearance on ‘You Quiz on the Block.’ If anything, politicians should be encouraged to communicate with the public as much as possible through various mediums. No one knows the truth for now, yet everyone is trying to speak louder than the opposing side. It’s simply a very Korean happening from our overheated politics; a side effect of our over-politicized society."
BY HALEY YANG [email@example.com]