13 hours after the 4-second hot-mic moment
The author is the Tokyo bureau chief and rotating correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.
We have been hearing the reruns of the controversy over “Biden” or “nallimen” over and over since President Yoon Suk-yeol’s senior press secretary Kim Eun-hye pleaded with the public to check the truth. (“Nallimen” in Korean means “if someone throws something away.”) But I really cannot decipher what President Yoon murmured after a 48-second talk with U.S. President Joe Biden in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last week.
Yoon is dead serious about clearing his name. Cho Hun-hyun, the legendary professional Go player, once said, ”In the game of Go, it is better to avoid making bad moves rather than trying to make cleaver moves. But in real-life situation, some may have to make bad moves to uphold convictions.” Whether Yoon is playing hard for truth or conviction cannot be known. But the hot-mic fiasco that has overshadowed all the results of his trip to London and New York should be clarified. Otherwise, it will hang over four years and seven months still left in his term.
Questions remain despite the presidential office’s explanation. According to the press secretary, President Yoon in the hot-mic moment caught in a TV camera amid loud background noise was referring to Korea’s National Assembly — not the U.S. Congress — and went on say, “if the Assembly throws away [nallimen] my proposal for Korea’s $100-million contribution to a global fund, I will be ashamed.” What Yoon said had nothing to do with a face-losing situation for Biden, the secretary explained. But her office did not do anything for 13 hours when her boss’s 4-second remarks went viral on social media, as he allegedly threw insulting remarks to the U.S. president and the Congress. Kim’s public relations office claimed that it had taken long for fact finding. She got it wrong. The staff at the presidential office is paid to respond well to bad publicity.
Sources say the president himself stayed up till dawn wracking his brain because he could not recall the exact wording he had spat out at the spur of the moment. Since attending the event for Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria was suddenly arranged, there had been no taped records the presidential office could verify on its own. Yoon’s aides had to rewind and listen to the broadcast version over and over to conclude that the president could not have mocked Biden or the Congress at such a moment and announced that what sounded like Biden was actually “nallimen” in Korean, not “Biden.” It belatedly received the results of outside analysis when the presidential delegation arrived in Canada for Yoon’s summit with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
There could be a limit to the president’s memory. It is the same for anyone. The coincidence also overlapped. Still, the media and opposition party are not patient. While the presidential office stumbled over 13 hours, the presumed hot mic rhetoric of the Korean president ridiculing the U.S. president and the Congress made news around the world. If the misreport could have endangered Korea’s alliance with America as the presidential office argues, it should have responded and corrected it as fast as possible. How could there have been no aides who stepped in to help the confounded president? He needed real risk-management professionals, not amateurs, around him. The 48-second encounter with the U.S. president has brought about a huge cost.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also had to settle for a brief talk with Biden at the Global Fund event while he was in New York for the General Assembly. He had a one-minute talk with Biden. But no media or the opposition from Japan called it a diplomatic disaster. Tokyo had not specified a bilateral summit with Biden citing uncertainties over the arrangement. Japan’s judgment contrasts with Korea’s National Security Office, which claimed that it had reached an agreement with Washington to have a summit. Instead of squeezing in the ephemeral talk with the U.S. president, Yoon’s time could have been better spent if he had attended a meeting of U.S. technology companies like Google and Oracle and Korean start-ups.
However, Yoon’s 30-minute talks with Kishida should be approached differently. The opposition and media in Korea discredit the move as a face-saving one for Yoon. But it was his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, who brought this about. To gather domestic support, Yoon could act like Moon, who put all the blame on Tokyo and did nothing to improve relations. But someone has to do the job. Yoon’s determination to go over to the place where Kishida stayed should be appreciated as it can pave the way for reconciliation in the future.