What They Said is a weekly series on the quotes behind the headlines.
Last week, South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol became embroiled in what has been termed the “expletive controversy” following a meeting with US President Joe Biden in New York. After the meeting on Wednesday, Yoon was caught on video saying, as first reported and captioned by MBC, “(미국) 국회에서 이XX들이 승인 안 해주면 바이든은 쪽팔려서 어떡하나?” Or (my translation), “It would be humiliating for Biden if those bastards didn’t pass [the bill] in (the US) Congress.”
The footage quickly went viral in South Korea.
As expected, the Democratic Party of Korea immediately jumped to condemn Yoon’s remarks. During their Policy Coordination Meeting on September 22, the Democratic Party floor leader Park Hong-geun commented:
“President Yoon Suk Yeol’s ‘expletive incident’ diplomacy has greatly tarnished the Republic of Korea’s national reputation. The denigrating remarks he made about the United States Congress on his way out of the conference room were captured on video, causing great trouble as a major diplomatic incident.”
— Park Hong-geun, floor leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, September 22, 2022
The news also made headlines around the world.
Foreign media companies have translated the term saekki (새끼) in different ways—“f***kers” was used by some, including The Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Washington Examiner, and The Hill; “bastards” by CNN, Reuters, and The Diplomat; “idiots” by The Independent, The Washington Post, the BBC, and MSNBC News among others. Saekki technically means ‘offspring’. Depending on the context, it can be used affectionately—often grandmothers can be heard saying, “kwiyeoun nae saekki” (귀여운 내새끼), which can be translated as “my adorable little one”. But aside from such instances, it is considered an expletive that adults tend to avoid saying around children. As such, the word is much stronger than ‘idiots’. The nuance with which Yoon said the word, if he did in fact say it, would be closer to ‘f***ers’, as the Korean term would also not be printed in newspapers. Perhaps a better translation would be ‘bastards’—not as strong, but still getting the meaning and the feeling across.
The day after the incident, Yoon’s senior press secretary Kim Eun-hye held a briefing to clarify the situation. She explained that with the word gukhoe, which MBC had construed to mean the United States Congress, Yoon was in fact referring to the South Korean National Assembly—the Korean terms for the United States Congress and the South Korean National Assembly are the same (국회, gukhoe). She also stated that Yoon had not said “Biden” but the Korean word nallimeun, and asked people to listen to the recording more carefully:
“Please listen to it again. He says, ‘If the National Assembly doesn’t pass [the bill] and drops it.’ There is no talk of the United States, and even less reason to utter the word ‘Biden’.”
— Kim Eun-hye, senior press secretary for the President’s Office, September 23, 2022.
However, many were still unconvinced by the government’s explanation, some wondering why it took 15 hours for the president’s office to put out such a statement.
In the meantime, members of the People Power Party offered up different explanations of what the president had said.
Former Supreme Council member Bae Hyun-jin posted an audio file and wrote on Facebook:
“This is the audio file [of Yoon’s private remarks] with as much background noise removed as possible, provided by a university that studies voices. You can clearly hear, ‘It would be humiliating if “these people” do not pass it and “block it” at the National Assembly.’ There was no ‘these bastards’ and no ‘Biden’. What he said is very clear, so the opposition party should have no reason to resent him, and say that they heard him swear at the National Assembly, since he didn’t, or claim that this was a diplomatic disaster, when there was none. This is a very peaceful conclusion. But is this really how we should treat a president who goes to work, every day?”
— Bae Hyun-jin, National Assembly Member for the People Power Party, September 23, 2022
Another National Assembly member for the People Power Party, Cho Kyoung-tae, had his own interpretation for the word Yoon had used (that sounded like “Biden”). He claimed that it was ballimyeon, a slang word meaning ‘unilaterally defeated’.
Some People Power Party members, however, seemed skeptical of the government’s or their own party’s explanations.
Daegu Mayor Hong Joon-pyo, who is a member of the People Power Party, remarked on Facebook:
“When an incident occurs, you always have to address it head on. If you lie to avoid a difficult moment, the lie will breed another lie, and things will snowball.
You should admit your mistakes, even if belatedly, and rectify them; if you drag it out, you will only lose public trust.
Did you not choose him knowing that he was inexperienced in politics?
Now that he’s been voted in, shouldn’t we return our country to normal by helping him improve what he isn’t skilled in, and encouraging him in what he is doing well?
Last December, before the presidential election, I said that if candidate Lee Jae-myung became president, this country would collapse, and if candidate Yoon Suk Yeol became president, this country would be in chaos. It is a shame to see the reality of our country as it is today. It’s not like there is a debate over some big national project; instead there are only incidents and gossip all over the country.”
— Hong Joon-pyo, Mayor of Daegu Metropolitan City, September 23, 2022
Yoon Suk Yeol returned from his visit on September 25. On his way to his office on September 26, a reporter asked him about the controversy surrounding his remarks, and Yoon replied:
“It is not so much a controversy, but let me say this. Except for one or two superpowers in the world, there is no country that can fully protect the lives and security of its people through its own capabilities alone. That is why alliances are essential for protecting the lives and security of our people. Undermining this alliance with false reports puts the people at great risk. This is what I first want to say, and the rest, I believe, should be discussed after the truth has come to light.”
— Yoon Suk Yeol, president of the Republic of Korea, September 26, 2022
The People Power Party now seems to be turning its focus onto MBC, which first reported Yoon’s remarks with the captions that sparked the furore. Lee Jong-bae, a Seoul Council member for the People Power Party held a press conference on September 26 and said that he had filed a lawsuit against MBC for spreading false information. It seems likely that this story will continue to run, unless Yoon provides a plausible explanation.