​South Korea's president and a failed overseas trip

By Mitchell Blatt
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, October 28, 2022
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South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol takes questions at a press conference marking his 100th day in office in Seoul on Aug. 17, 2022. [Photo/cfp.cn]

A South Korean friend and I were discussing President Yoon Suk-yeol's diplomatic flubs he committed on his trip to London and New York in September. 

He was being criticized from across the spectrum in South Korea for poor planning, lack of etiquette, failing to promote South Korea's interests effectively, and even being caught on camera speaking coarsely about allies. 

In London, Yoon was absent from Queen Elizabeth II's lying in state. He blamed traffic, but leaders of other countries, including French President Emmanuel Macron, avoided traffic by walking to Westminster Hall. 

In New York City, he meant to discuss his concerns over the protectionist elements of the United States' Inflation Reduction Act, but he was unable to schedule a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden. Instead, he had to settle for a 48-second conversation on the sidelines of a UN event. 

While he had no real meeting with Biden, he did manage to set up long-desired "informal talks" with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. Or, he had a "short chat" with him. Which will depend on whether you trust the South Korean media or the Japanese media's accounts. 

At least Yoon got a lot of talking in with Fumio. According to the Asahi Shimbun, the Japanese PM "barely spoke so it was up to Yoon to continue speaking to prolong the meeting."

Yoon capped it all off with his crowning diplomatic achievement: He was caught on camera calling American legislators "bastards" and laughing about how Biden will be humiliated if they don't pass his bill to fund global health programs. The opposition party accused Yoon of disrespecting the country's greatest ally. They demanded he fire his national security advisor, deputy national security advisor, and foreign minister. 

Yoon denied that he was talking about Biden and claimed he was talking about South Korea's own National Assembly – an interesting way to try to defuse the controversy he caused with the opposition party, which controls the Assembly. 

Yoon's approval rating had dropped to about 20% by the end of last month. He doubled down by attacking the press. His party's leaders want to have MBC, the broadcaster that ran the video, facing investigation. Doing so to punish a news outlet for its unfavorable reporting would constitute an assault on freedom of speech.

All of this is quite similar to what Donald Trump did in his four years as U.S. president. Trump would say something stupid and vulgar and then deny having said it, despite the fact that it was all clearly on video.

"I've watched the video 10 times. It was 'Biden,'" one commenter wrote.

My friend agreed: "It sounded like 'Biden.'"

Attacking the media is another favorite Trump tactic. Yoon accused the media of harming the ROK-U.S. alliance. Yoon's own actions are to blame.

As an American, I am actually not surprised or offended by Yoon's vulgarity. We've been used to seeing a lot worse in American politics. And we think American congresspeople are "bastards," too.

What hurts Yoon in his relations with the U.S., U.K., and Japan is his complete lack of planning and his poor decision-making. How could he not schedule a meeting with Biden before his trip? He came away with nothing to show.

There is an urgency to the manufacturing and trade issues South Korea faces with regard to the United States. This Inflation Reduction Act, with its tax credits for American-made electric cars and Australian-mined lithium in batteries, was one of Biden's top priorities. He had been working on it for one-and-a-half years. It was heavily reported in the U.S. press. Why didn't Yoon's administration follow it and address their concerns with Biden before the bill became law?

Yoon's team prefers to take premature victory laps rather than doing the work to get things done. An earlier attempt to schedule a meeting with Japan's PM was canceled after one official announced it to the press before Japan was ready. Now they just did the same thing to U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.

According to Michelle Ye Hee Lee, a reporter for the Washington Post, Harris's trip to visit the Demilitarized Zone was supposed to be confidential, but "South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo unexpectedly revealed it" to the press at his briefing. This kind of blunder decreases trust.

Just like how Trump could not reach a deal between the two Koreas and only made relations between NATO members worse during his term in office, Yoon, too, may face similar future challenges in his diplomatic agenda. 

Mitchell Blatt is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:


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