The president of South Korea has been caught on camera calling US lawmakers “idiots” and saying that they could possibly embarrass US President Joe Biden if they don’t approve funding for global public health initiatives.
Mr Biden has just met Yoon Suk-yeol, a political newcomer without prior experience in elected office who became president in May, at the Global Fund’s Seventh Replenishment Conference hosted in New York.
Mr Biden had promised that the US would provide $6bn to the public health operation battling AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria around the world. But the funds would have to be greenlit by the US Congress.
“It would be so humiliating for Biden if these idiots don’t pass it in Congress,” Mr Yoon could be heard telling aides in a video that soon went viral in South Korea.
On Thursday, the office of the South Korean president tried to smooth things over by rejecting the idea that the remarks were aimed at American elected officials. A spokeswoman said that Mr Yoon didn’t mention Mr Biden by name and that it was supposedly mistaken for a word that sounds similar. Kim Eun-hye claimed that Mr Yoon had been speaking about the South Korean parliament, not the US Congress, according to The Washington Post.
But South Korean critics slammed that response, with the opposing Democratic Party’s floor leader Park Hong-geun saying that the excuse was “ill-founded” and that the office of the president was attempting to deflect from a “diplomatic disaster”.
A US National Security Council spokesperson said on Thursday that the council would “not comment on the hot mic comments,” according to The Post.
“Our relationship with the Republic of Korea is strong and growing,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “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.”
Both of the presidents were present in New York City to attend the UN General Assembly, during which they spoke on Wednesday.
In a readout of the meeting, the White House said that “the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen the US-ROK alliance and ensure close cooperation to address the threat posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)”.
“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 readout stated.
Tensions are growing between the US and South Korea concerning the passage of the Inflation Reduction act and its new rules on electric vehicle subsidies.
The new law removes consumer tax credits for South Korean car makers that don’t have active factories in the US making electric vehicles.
“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,” Mr Yoon’s said, according to The Post.