Hot mic catches foreign leader calling some in Congress ‘idiots’

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol had an opportunity to meet with President Joe Biden in New York this week, and the American leader pledged $6 billion to a global health campaign to combat AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.

The commitment, however, will require congressional support, and that apparently concerns the South Korean leader, who doesn’t seem to think too highly of some on Capitol Hill. The Washington Post reported:

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol was caught on a hot mic Wednesday insulting U.S. Congress members as “idiots” who could be a potential embarrassment for President Biden if they did not approve funding for global public health…. “It would be so humiliating for Biden if these idiots don’t pass it in Congress,” Yoon was overheard telling a group of aides as they left the event. Video of the exchange quickly went viral in South Korea, where Yoon took office in May as a political rookie.

It’s worth emphasizing that Yoon’s office said there’d been a misunderstanding, and he was actually referring to the South Korean parliament, not the U.S. Congress.

I suppose that’s possible, but few appear to be embracing this explanation as sincere. Instead, Politico asked some on Capitol Hill for their reactions, and they shrugged off Yoon’s hot mic rhetoric.

“I think he’s just expressing in a colorful way the importance of the Global Fund, as a big supporter of the Global Fund,” said Democratic Rep. Ami Beri, the chair of Congress’ Korea Caucus. Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, added, “Our relationship with South Korea is too close for too long, for a slippage of words or anything else to destroy that. South Korea is tremendously important to us and the Pacific region.”

Those are, of course, the appropriate responses — not only because Yoon probably wasn’t referring to policymakers such as Beri and Meeks, but also because the United States and South Korea are close allies, and some hot mic candor is easily overlooked.

But there is a larger arc to a story like this one: The world takes note of congressional dysfunction, which can have an adverse effect on U.S. credibility on the international stage.

Foreign leaders hear Biden make worthwhile declarations, and they want to believe that he’ll be able to follow through on his vows. But they also seem to realize that the American president has to work with a co-equal branch.

The answer isn’t to get too worked up about a derogatory comment from an allied leader, it’s to have a Congress that can effectively partner with the White House on worthwhile goals such as international public health campaigns.