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[Editorial] No laughing matter

Yoon’s aide apologizes for inappropriate comments, shows no sign of stepping down

March 18, 2024 - 05:31 By Korea Herald

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s senior secretary Hwang Sang-moo issued a formal apology Saturday, two days after his controversial remarks about a 1988 terrorist attack on a journalist and the 1980 Gwangju Democratic Uprising touched off a firestorm of criticism from the media and opposition parties.

“I apologize for the distress my words have caused,” Hwang said in a notification to the press from the presidential office. “I apologize to the journalists for failing to consider the position of those who listen to (my story), and to the bereaved families of the victims of the (Gwangju Uprising), who would not have wanted to be reminded of it.”

In the statement, Hwang, the senior presidential secretary for civil and social affairs, said he would be more careful with his language and behavior as a public figure in the future, without revealing his position on the demands of opposition parties and media organizations for his resignation, effectively refusing to step down.

Hwang’s apology seems inevitable, as his inflammatory comments about the two incidents are feared to undermine President Yoon's standing ahead of the April 10 parliamentary election.

Despite the apology, however, there are a host of questions to be answered about why Hwang made such provocative remarks targeting MBC, a major broadcasting station that has been critical of Yoon, and his equally insensitive comments questioning the spirit of the Gwangju Uprising -- especially considering his primary job as a presidential aide to communicate with citizens and his career as a veteran TV journalist.

On Thursday night, MBC reported that Hwang told reporters, “An economic daily reporter was stabbed in the leg twice in 1988,” referring to the case in which the late journalist Oh Hong-keun, who had been the city desk editor of the now-defunct JoongAng Economic Daily, was attacked by two men near his home after he had criticized the military.

The investigations found later that the two assailants had been following an order from the then-commander of the Korea Defense Intelligence Command, an Army intelligence unit.

Hwang reportedly turned his attention to an MBC reporter in the meeting Thursday before mentioning the 1988 attack, saying, “Listen up, MBC.” MBC is in a legal battle with the government over its report on the so-called “hot mic” incident in September 2022 when Yoon, while on a visit to New York, allegedly used vulgar language.

It is a historical fact that press freedom and democracy in Korea were in a sorry state in 1988 -- so much so that such a brutal and barbaric attack on a journalist critical of the government or the military happened.

But it seems shocking that Hwang, a former news presenter for state-run KBS, dared to cite the past case for questionable purposes now in 2024.

Hwang said his comments were “a joke” and asked the reporters there to keep his words private. In addition to the worrying threat to freedom of speech, some things cannot be laughed away, and Hwang’s remarks underscore not only his misguided idea about the role of the press but also what must not be said even in a private conversation with reporters.

According to MBC’s report, Hwang also expressed doubts about the grassroots movement behind the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and claimed there are suspicions that an “external force” might have masterminded the uprising.

Given the inaction from the presidential office, Yoon seems unlikely to sack Hwang over his controversial remarks. But if Yoon wants to minimize the negative impact of his image in the run-up to the election, he needs to do far more than temporary damage control, as his approval rating fell by 3 percentage points to 36 percent on Friday.

This drop partly reflects the ongoing walkout by trainee doctors as well as his hasty appointment of former Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup as the new ambassador to Australia even though he is still under investigation for his role in allegedly downplaying and interfering in the probe over the death of a young Marine last year.