The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

South Korean president overheard insulting U.S. Congress as ‘idiots’

President Biden stands next to, from left, (RED) Ambassador and AIDS activist Connie Mudenda, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Global Fund’s Seventh Replenishment Conference in New York City on Wednesday. (Yonhap/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
3 min

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol was caught on a hot mic Wednesday insulting U.S. Congress members as “idiots” who could be a potential embarrassment for President Biden if they did not approve funding for global public health.

Yoon had just met with Biden at the Global Fund’s Seventh Replenishment Conference in New York City. There, Biden had pledged $6 billion from the United States to the public health campaign, which fights AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria worldwide. The funding would require congressional approval.

“It would be so humiliating for Biden if these idiots don’t pass it in Congress,” Yoon was overheard telling a group of aides as they left the event. Video of the exchange quickly went viral in South Korea, where Yoon took office in May as a political rookie. He has never held elected office before and lacks prior experience in foreign policy.

South Korea’s presidential office on Thursday denied that Yoon’s remarks were targeted at the United States. His spokeswoman said Yoon did not mention Biden by name and it was misheard for a similar-sounding word in Korean. Kim Eun-hye, the spokeswoman, also said that Yoon was referring to South Korea’s parliament instead of the U.S. Congress.

The justification Kim gave did not impress critics in Seoul. Park Hong-geun, floor leader of the opposition Democratic Party, called it “an ill-founded excuse” by the presidential office trying to cover up a “diplomatic disaster.”

A spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council said in a statement Thursday it would “not comment on the hot mic comments.”

“Our relationship with the Republic of Korea is strong and growing,” the statement said. “President Biden counts President Yoon as a key ally. The two leaders had a good, productive meeting on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly yesterday.”

Yoon and Biden were both in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, where they held discussions on the sidelines Wednesday.

“The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen the U.S.-ROK alliance and ensure close cooperation to address the threat posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),” the White House said in a readout of their meeting. “The Presidents also discussed our ongoing cooperation on a broad range of priority issues including supply chain resilience, critical technologies, economic and energy security, global health, and climate change.”

The presidential meeting came amid a growing trade tension between the allies over the Biden administration’s new rules on subsidies for electric vehicles. The Inflation Reduction Act signed by Biden will eliminate consumer tax credits for South Korean automakers without operational EV plants in the United States.

“President Yoon asked for close cooperation so that the U.S. administration can resolve our concerns in the process of enforcing the Inflation Reduction Act,” Yoon’s office said in a statement.

Min Joo Kim reported from Seoul.

Watch more:

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol gave a halting response when asked about gender issues by a Washington Post reporter on Sept. 21. (Video: The Washington Post)