[Column] Yoon finds a role model in Trump and his 30,573 lies

Posted on : 2022-09-28 17:31 KST Modified on : 2022-09-28 17:31 KST
The fact that Yoon failed to achieve the key objectives of his trip abroad can’t be covered up with any “alternative facts”
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks to President Joe Biden of the US on Sept. 21 (local time) following a meeting for the Global Fund in New York. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks to President Joe Biden of the US on Sept. 21 (local time) following a meeting for the Global Fund in New York. (Yonhap)

Park Min-hee, editorial writer

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol won’t stop dragging out the controversy over reports of his use of vulgar language. Whether he was referring to the US Congress or the Korean National Assembly, the problem was the glib arrogance with which he referred to other people as “jackasses.” If he’d offered a candid explanation and a sincere apology, the whole thing would already have blown over.

After the controversy was inflamed by the far-fetched excuses offered by his press secretary, Kim Eun-hye, Yoon himself refused to apologize after returning to the country. Since then, he’s been grappling with the press and his critics by accusing them of “damaging the alliance” and promising to “get to the bottom” of the matter.

When Donald Trump’s inauguration was held in Washington on Jan. 20, 2017, the media reported that the crowd was far fewer than the one shown in photos of the inauguration of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Under orders from a furious Trump, White House press secretary Sean Spicer claimed the crowd was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration.”

When reporters asked why the press secretary had lied, White House senior advisor Kellyanne Conway offered a bizarre retort: “You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And [. . .] Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts.”

That all seems suspiciously similar to the constant flip-flopping and foot-dragging displayed by Yoon, his press secretary and hardline pro-Yoon lawmakers.

It’s time to ask why Yoon and the presidential office have deliberately chosen to escalate the situation rather than moving on from the vulgarity controversy.

After the spectacular failure of Yoon’s meetings with his American and Japanese counterparts — which Kim Tae-hyo, the first deputy director of the National Security Office, had bragged about being “gladly agreed to” on Sept. 15 — the Korean public began clamoring for foreign policy and national security officials to be held accountable. Perhaps the people who ought to be taking responsibility by stepping down have been stirring the pot over the vulgarity controversy in the hope of wriggling out of their predicament.

The fact that Yoon failed to achieve the key objectives of his trip abroad — i.e., ending discrimination against Korean-made electric vehicles in the Inflation Reduction Act, arranging a won-dollar currency swap with the US, and finding a “grand bargain” that can improve relations with Japan — can’t be covered up with any “alternative facts.”

The Korean government announced that the White House had been satisfied by its explanation, all while Yoon himself refused to give the Korean public a word of explanation about his remarks. The international community is unlikely to respect a leader who sees nothing wrong with ignoring the public as long as the US says everything is fine.

“Yoon has gotten a bad reputation in the US political establishment since the vulgarity scandal came out, but the US government or Congress aren’t going to make an issue of this on an official level. That’s because American politicians think Korea will be more easily influenced by the US as long as Yoon is their diplomatic partner,” said a diplomatic source in Washington.

In effect, Yoon and the presidential office’s clumsy imitation of Trump are confirming to other countries that Yoon isn’t a trustworthy diplomatic partner for serious discussions of adjusting the world order.

I suspect that other world leaders will treat Korea like an easily manipulated pawn on a chess board while inwardly holding Yoon in contempt.

No respect for Yoon is evidenced in the account of his brief meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida that was printed in the Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper.

The newspaper quoted an official from Kishida’s office as saying that Yoon had “talked at length to prolong the session even as Kishida showed little enthusiasm for what was being discussed.”

“Because they said they wanted a meeting even with little prospect of a specific result, we agreed to a meeting that we did not have to attend. South Korea now owes Japan so they will have to produce something for the next meeting,” the official added.

Japanese politicians do welcome Yoon’s emphasis on strengthening national security cooperation with the US and Japan. But the further that Yoon’s approval rating falls, the more they worry that he’ll pivot to anti-Japanese sentiment to get a ratings boost, just as former President Lee Myung-bak did, according to a report in the Nikkei Asia on Sept. 19.

Another problem with Yoon’s penchant for botching every major diplomatic occasion is that it robs Korean society of an opportunity to seriously discuss a major turning point in international affairs.

Yoon’s attendance at the NATO summit in June ought to have been a chance to debate what role Korea should play amid these geopolitical changes, but the only outcomes were controversies over private citizens in the president’s entourage and Kim Keon-hee’s jewelry.

Once again, a chance for a serious debate about economic security, supply chain reorganization, and Korea-Japan relations was lost during the uproar over what exactly Yoon said on a hot mic.

Right now, Korea’s diplomats’ abilities are under great strain as they seek to grasp changes in the world order and devise a response to those changes.

Koreans don’t blame Yoon for being a novice when it comes to foreign policy. They want him to humbly acknowledge his lack of experience with foreign policy, national security and economic security, and they want him to listen closely to various expert opinions and select a strategist who will be suitable for this transitional time in the world order.

Leaders with a great deal of courage and self-esteem are able to apologize for and reflect upon their mistakes while moving forward. But incompetent and obstinate leaders get hung up on “alternative facts.”

During his four years in office, Trump told 30,573 lies, according to the Washington Post. How many lies does Yoon mean to tell Koreans?

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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