South Korea president Yoon Suk-yeol disputes translations of hot mic insult

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol made a remark widely interpreted as an insult to the US Congress. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL - President Yoon Suk-yeol's office disputed translations of remarks by the South Korean leader widely interpreted as an insult to the United States Congress, as he faced growing calls at home to apologise.

Mr Yoon was overheard insulting American lawmakers, after briefly meeting President Joe Biden in New York to discuss issues including US electric-vehicle subsidies that South Korea wants to change.

"What an embarrassment for Biden, if these idiots refuse to grant it in Congress," video broadcast on South Korean television showed Mr Yoon telling his foreign minister.

On Thursday, however, Mr Yoon's press secretary Kim Eun-hye denied that Mr Yoon had named "Biden", saying that the Korean word in question was "nallimyeon", or "blow-up".

Ms Kim further asserted that "congress" referred to the Korean National Assembly, not the US' legislature.

"I'd like to ask, what does a country mean to us? Interests of political factions should never come before national interests," Ms Kim said.

South Korea's presidential office did not respond to Bloomberg News's request for a full translation of Mr Yoon's remark. The translation differed from those used by numerous South Korean and international media outlets, including Bloomberg News.

And a senior presidential office officials did not dispute that Mr Yoon had mentioned Mr Biden's name when he defended the comments in a briefing immediately after the video was broadcast.

Mr Yoon has come under pressure at home to remedy provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act signed last month by Mr Biden, which includes tax credits of as much as US$7,500 (S$10,649) for purchases of electric vehicles made in North America.

That could disadvantage major South Korean brands such as Hyundai and Kia, which do not yet have operational EV plants in the US.

Mr Yoon has already faced criticism for shunning an in-person meeting with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she visited South Korea in August, when he was on vacation. The visit, coming just days before the legislation passed, would have provided an opportunity to press for changes to the bill.

While it was unclear whether the off-the-cuff comments would affect South Korea's push for relief in Washington, they were met with derision from opposition lawmakers in Seoul.

Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee member Lee Woon-wook called for Mr Yoon to apologise and suggested that Parliament could issue its own apology if he would not.

Mr Park Seong-jun, spokesman for the opposition Democratic Party, rejected the presidential press secretary's translation.

"Kim Eun-hye's explanation will be marked as the worst lie in history, not only to the Korean people but also to the entire world," Mr Park said on Friday. BLOOMBERG

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