Good afternoon, good night, goodness me: South Korea's Moon Jae-in slammed over wrong greetings in Malaysia

At a press conference with Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur on March 13, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said "selamat sore", which is more commonly used in Indonesia, instead of "selamat petang".
At a press conference with Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur on March 13, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said "selamat sore", which is more commonly used in Indonesia, instead of "selamat petang".PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (AFP) - What's the difference between good afternoon and good night? In South Korea's cut-throat politics, it can be a furious political row and the foreign minister apologising to Parliament.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited Malaysia earlier this month and greeted his audience at an afternoon press conference with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad using the phrase "selamat sore".

The line is more commonly used in Indonesia - although the neighbours' languages are so similar they are generally mutually intelligible.

At the time, Tun Mahathir smiled and appeared amused, while Malaysian senior ministers laughed, but Mr Moon's South Korean critics slammed him for not using the correct Malaysian greeting "selamat petang".

And his use of that phrase, meaning "good afternoon", at a dinner beginning at 8pm - rather than "selamat malam", or good night - triggered another round of fury in Seoul.

Opposition lawmakers and newspapers lined up to excoriate Mr Moon, with headlines calling it a "diplomatic disaster".

The Korea Times assailed the "incompetence" of the presidential protocol team on Friday (March 22).

"The absence of a protest from the host country does not excuse the unbelievable carelessness," it added, saying it was one of a series of incidents demonstrating a "serious lack of professionalism and ethics" in the Blue House.

South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has apologised to Parliament, admitting that her ministry had made a "painful mistake".

"I apologise for causing concerns," she told the national assembly on Wednesday.

But an aide for the Malaysian prime minister's office told AFP that "selamat sore" was usable in Malaysia too.

"We were happy and amused when the President said it," he told AFP. "Personally, it is a non-issue."