South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol has denied insulting US Congress in remarks made after meeting US President Joe Biden last week in New York.
He was caught on a hot mic and seen on camera seemingly calling US lawmakers a Korean word that can be translated as “idiots” or something much stronger.
The footage quickly went viral in South Korea.
But his spokeswoman says he had “no reason to talk about the US or utter the word ‘Biden'”.
The remark is said to have occurred as part of a conversation about Mr Biden’s drive to increase the US contribution to a global initiative known as the Global Fund, which would require congressional approval.
“How could Biden not lose face if these [expletive] do not pass it in Congress?,” Mr Yoon apparently said to his aides afterwards.
Presidential spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye said in New York on Thursday Mr Yoon did not actually say “Biden”, but a similar-sounding Korean word, and that he was referring to the South Korean parliament, not the US Congress.
Many were unconvinced by the government’s defence – an opposition MP said it was like telling Koreans they were “hearing impaired”.
Mr Yoon is a former prosecutor who only entered politics last year and won the presidential elections earlier this year by less than 1%.
He is known as being prone to gaffes and has been struggling with low approval ratings soon after being elected, correspondents say.
He also drew criticism for failing to attend the Queen’s lying-in-state on his first day in London, for which his office blamed traffic issues.
Last year, he had to backtrack on his comment that the authoritarian president Chun Doo-hwan, who was responsible for massacring protesters in 1980, was “good at politics”.