Two years after taking office South Korean President Moon Jae-in finally gave his first interview to domestic media this week, only for his questioner to face allegations she insulted him with “rude” facial expressions.
In a hierarchical society with a history of dictatorship and strong traditional values, South Korean presidents are largely regarded as deserving utmost respect – even though all four of the country’s living former heads of state are either in prison or have previously been jailed.
Since coming to office Moon has shied away from public questioning, holding only a handful of press conferences and granting interviews only to a few foreign outlets.
That changed Thursday with a live television discussion with national broadcaster KBS to mark the second anniversary of his inauguration.
In it, Moon defended his handling of the South’s flagging economy and criticised North Korea’s latest missile launch.
By Western standards, the questioning by correspondent Song Hyun-jung was mild and deferential.
But within minutes of the broadcast ending, Song – one of the channel’s senior political reporters – was being condemned online by some of Moon’s most devoted supporters for “being too aggressive” and what they called her “rude attitude” and facial expressions.
She had “interrupted the president”, they said, adding that frowning in front of the head of state was “ill-mannered” and “unpleasant”.
An online petition asking Moon’s office to “choose a better interviewer” for future TV appearances had garnered around 20,000 signatures as of Friday afternoon.
Several commentators focussed on a question where Song asked Moon how he felt about being branded a “dictator” by the main opposition party.
“This just shows that our democracy is not healthy,” political commentator Park Sang-byung told AFP.
“If the main opposition party has called the president a dictator, then any reporter has every right to ask him about it. It’s always healthier to talk about difficult issues and words, rather than avoiding them altogether.”
Song’s defenders said she was targeted partly because she was a woman and was seen as going against the gender norm expected when dealing with an older, powerful man.
“The fact that she is being criticised for her attitude – and her facial expression – shows how unfamiliar the South Korean public is when it comes to seeing women who challenge men in power,” said Bae Bok-ju, a women’s rights activist.
But Chae Jin-won, a professor at Humanitas College of Kyung Hee University, said Song had acted like a “prosecutor investigating a suspect”.
“It was his first TV interview since Moon took office. Most Koreans wanted to watch a conversation, I think, rather than what almost looks like a trial,” he said.
The presidential Blue House said it was “inappropriate” for it to comment on the public criticism against the reporter, but added that Moon was not “displeased” after the interview – and that he would not have minded a “more aggressive battle”.