What They Said is a weekly series on the quotes behind the headlines.
The ruling People Power Party has been making headlines in South Korean politics in recent weeks. But one particular incident of note took place last weekend, involving Doctor Ihn Yohan. On October 23, Ihn, also known as John Alderman Linton, was named the chairman of the party’s innovation committee. Born and raised in Jeolla province to American missionaries to Korea, Ihn is a dual US-Korean citizen, and he grew up speaking a mix of English and Korean, the latter of which he speaks with a pretty heavy Jeolla accent. He studied medicine in both the United States and South Korea, and he was the first person to introduce an ambulance to South Korea. He is currently a doctor, serving as the Director of Yonsei University’s International Health Care Center at Severance Hospital. Yet his blue-eyed, non-Korean appearance has ignited what could only be described as racism among the Korean public since his appointment.
On October 28, Ihn attended the one-year memorial event for the October 29 Incident, where he was met with some protesters. One of them even shouted, “How dare you come here? You’re not even Korean!”
Then on November 4, he paid a surprise visit to Busan, where he attended a “talk concert” featuring Lee Jun-seok, the former PPP leader who was suspended by the party’s ethics committee in 2022 for a bribery and prostitution scandal. This was two days after Lee’s suspension was lifted, as part of Ihn’s first proposed innovation, an effort to embrace politicians who are considered to be anti-Yoon Suk Yeol. Unfortunately, the event only seems to have created a rift between Lee Jun-seok and the rest of the People Power Party. During the event, Lee (who graduated from Harvard University) addressed Ihn by his American name, “Mr. Linton”, and spoke to him in English, even though both are fluent in Korean. Regarding the reason why he spoke to Ihn in English, Lee said:
“Actually, the reason I spoke to Doctor Ihn Yohan in English is [사실 인요한 박사님한테 영어로 말씀드린 이유는; from here, Lee spoke English], you became one of us, but you don’t look like one of us, as of now. Please be on our side and speak in the same language as we do. Speak in the language of democracy.”
— Lee Jun-seok, former People Power Party leader, November 4, 2023
On November 5, in an interview with Jeong Un-gap, the host of MBN’s Sisa Special (meaning Current Affairs Special), Ihn expressed feeling a bit hurt by Lee’s treatment of him at the event.
“In regards to him speaking to me in English, em>aigo [Korean expression for a sigh], my grandmother was born in Mokpo in 1899, my father was born in Gunsan in 1926, and I was born in Jeolla province, so that part was a bit hard for me to take. It was hard for me when I was heading back after the Itaewon memorial event ended and people were yelling at me, and the second thing I found hard was when former party leader Mr. Lee talked to me in English. When he was doing that, I said to him, ‘You speak English better than I do,’ trying to put a positive spin on it. But I was a little hurt.”
— Ihn Yohan, Chairman of the Innovation Committee of the People Power Party, November 5, 2023
Professor Peter Jongho Na of Yale University expressed anger over Lee’s treatment of Ihn on X (formerly Twitter):
“Had an influential American politician spoken to a second-generation Korean American who was born and raised in the United States in Korean during a public event, and sarcastically at that, he would be thrown out for being a racist. I don’t like to talk about politics, but [Lee] is not qualified to be a politician and should make a public apology.
— Peter Jongho Na, professor at Yale University, November 5, 2023
Lee denied any allegations of racism, explaining that he only spoke to Ihn in English “in consideration of his language proficiency”, referring to a radio interview during which Ihn objected to the host using the word Yoonhaekgwan (short for “Yoon Suk Yeol haeksim gwangyeja,” meaning key associates of President Yoon Suk Yeol within the PPP), saying that the word sounds bad because of the syllable haek, as in haekmugi (meaning nuclear weapons). The two terms–Yoonhaekgwan and haekmugi–had not previously been associated with each other.
Kang Sa-been, the People Power Party’s full-time deputy spokesperson, who has been critical of Lee, wrote on Facebook:
“I was very disappointed by former party leader Lee Jun-seok’s actions today. Innovation Committee Chairman Ihn Yohan went all the way to Busan to see Mr. Lee. But Mr. Ihn had the door slammed in his face. No meeting took place between the two of them. … Mr. Lee apparently spoke to Mr. Ihn in English, addressing him as ‘Mr. Linton.’ Mr. Ihn Yohan was the first person to become a naturalized citizen under the “Special Naturalization” clause of our constitution. He is a Korean, born in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, who has lived for over 60 years in Korea. Mr. Lee addressing him in English makes me wonder if Mr. Lee himself is driven by racial bias.”
— Kang Sa-been, full-time deputy spokesperson for the People Power Party, November 5, 2023
The Korean public seems divided, with some taking Lee’s side and others standing against him, and most likely the issue will soon be buried under piles of other news. But the issue of race will become a big one in the years to come, with children of immigrants being born and raised in Korea but considered foreigners unless they go through the painstaking process of naturalization, in which case they have to let go of their original citizenship since South Korea does not allow dual citizenship with certain exceptions, as well as more and more non-Koreans coming to Korea with the dream of living in the country where K-pop and K-dramas originated.