Photo: Channel A's report praising Yoon Suk-yeol's fluency in English. Credit: Channel A.
President Yoon Suk-yeol 윤석열 대통령’s state visit to Washington DC this week is an important opportunity for him to boost his sagging approval rate. In the first US state visit for a South Korean head of state in 12 years, Yoon could leverage the ceremonial atmosphere celebrating the 70th anniversary of the ROK-US alliance to burnish his image as a statesman on the world stage - something he has thus far been unable to do, as each of his foreign trips has been marred by his utter inability to follow diplomatic protocols. (See previous coverage, “Diplomatic Disaster Parts I, II and III.”)
A major point of emphasis is Yoon’s English. Yoon will address the Joint Session of the US Congress in English on April 27, and will give remarks the next day at Harvard University and hold a public discussion with Professor Joseph Nye about the threat to democracy posed by fake news - a pertinent topic considering his administration’s relentless attacks on MBC News over the liberal-leaning TV station’s reporting. (See previous coverage, “Conservatives vs MBC News.”)
As a nation whose wealth is built on international trade, South Korea spends an inordinate amount of resources on English education. South Korea’s market for English language private tutoring is estimated to be well over KRW 10t (USD 7.5b), with children as young as three often enrolled in English-speaking preschools. In this milieu, fluency in English is not just a skill, but a sign of class and sophistication.
Naturally, the conservative press is playing up Yoon’s English ability. Channel A 채널A, a right-wing cable news channel, fawningly related an anecdote in which Yoon suggested a different English word to the interpreter during an interview with international press. A report by Money Today 머니투데이 said Yoon was “personally personally going through the speech line by line, to make sure he captures the attention of Washington political elites.” One must question the wisdom of building up expectations in this way, however, considering that the president whose nickname is “a Gaffe a Day 1일 1망언” is unlikely to improve in a second language.