English language flap in Korea

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From the Korea Times (11/6/23):

Ihn says he was 'very disappointed' after ex-leader Lee spoke to him in English


Before you read the article, it's unlikely that you could begin to surmise what the commotion is all about.

The American Korean chief of the ruling People Power Party (PPP)'s innovation committee said Monday he was "very disappointed" that former party leader Lee Jun-seok treated him as a foreigner by speaking to him in English during a weekend event.

Committee Chairman Ihn Yo-han, who was born and raised in Korea, can speak perfect Korean. Still, however, Lee spoke to him in English during an event in the southeastern city of Busan on Saturday in what some critics described as racist behavior.

Ihn, a medical doctor, took over as the PPP's innovation chief in charge of reforms last month. He has since tried to patch up internal feuds in the party, including Lee's badly frayed relations with party leaders close to President Yoon Suk Yeol.

After being repeatedly denied a meeting with Lee, Ihn traveled all the way to Busan in the hopes of seeing him. But Lee gave him a cold response, speaking in English from the podium to Ihn, seated in the audience.

"Mr. Linton, I wasn't expecting you," Lee said during the event, addressing Ihn by his American name, John Linton, instead of his Korean name.

Lee said he spoke in English because, "You became one of us, but you don't look like one of us."

Can you imagine how Korean-Americans in the United States would react to that kind of language?

"The real patient is in Seoul. You need to go talk to him. He needs the pill," Lee said in what the local media interpreted as a reference to President Yoon.

Ihn quipped in Korean, "He appears to be speaking better English than me."

On Monday, Ihn expressed disappointment.

"Lee Jun-seok talked to me in English. I was very disappointed," Ihn said in a radio interview. "It was hard being treated as a foreigner."

This story has been all over the Korean news, as the PPP are fighting amongst themselves in the most amusing way. Ihn Yo-han has received mostly positive attention as a quick-witted American-Korean with a Jeolla-do (southwestern) accent, but an internecine fight came to a head with Lee Jun-seok insulting him and other party figures in English.

Ihn's reply of "yeong-eoleul jeoboda jalhasineyo 영어를 저보다 잘하시네요" ("He speaks English better than me") is hilarious, combining the surprisal suffix -네 with the honorific suffix -시 referring to Lee and the humble form 저 for himself.
Korean report and video of incident.
The English comments had to be translated back into Korean for the news audience.
Selected readings

[Thanks to Kendall Willets]


  1. Robert Ramsey said,

    November 8, 2023 @ 8:42 pm

    Yes, the Korean news world has gone quite crazy lately over Ihn Yo-han, and he appears quite regularly on the front page of Korean dailies. He is very popular and well known, often speaking in public fora–in completely native Korean!

    Oftentimes people in Korea with Western faces will hear from admiring Koreans, "You speak perfect Korean!" But of course, the truth is that, no matter how fluent in Korean that non-native speaker might be, his or her speech is almost never that: perfect, meaning just like, indistinguishable from, the speech of a native.

    In the case of Ihn Yo-han, however, it is. What Ihn says (and writes!) actually is that of an educated Korean. Born John Linton in a famous missionary family in rural Korea, Ihn has lived a completely Korean life from the time he was born, going through the Korean school system until finally graduating with honors from the prestigious Yonsei Medical School. He then took up residency in Severance Hospital, where he has long worked as a respected physician. Oh, and it might also be noted that he married a Korean woman and has Korean children.

    Ihn's brother Steve Linton (who speaks super fluent, colloquial Korean himself) has told me on more than one occasion that "John" speaks Korean far better, more naturally, and more accurately than he does English! And so, "John" may look like he's a guy from North Carolina (which is where his missionary family came from). But culturally and linguistically? There, without question he's every bit the native Korean!

    So, I can only imagine how terribly frustrating and annoying it must have been for Ihn to hear Lee trying to speak to him in English!

  2. Ross King said,

    November 8, 2023 @ 10:46 pm

    I concur with everything Bob Ramsey says. Ihn Yo-han speaks flawless Korean, and moreover, speaks it as a first language (he didn't learn it the hard way, as it were). What this 'flap' shows is a number of things: a) how utterly unprepared Korea and Koreans still are psychologically and culturally for 'foreigners' who speak their language (whether as a first or second language, and especially when the 'foreigners' in question are not Asian-looking), b) how deeply racialized the notion of 'speaking Korean' is, and c) what an arrogant so-and-so Jun-Seok Lee is–this sort of arrogance (and concomitant refusal to, or at least disinclination to, speak in Korean to foreigners) intensifies, the more education (and the more overseas/US education) a Korean elite has. So no surprise that Lee graduated from Harvard (I note that most of the Comments on the different Youtube videos about this incident are overwhelmingly appalled at Lee, and openly question his humanity and his upbringing). This sort of cultural immaturity around who has the right to speak Korean and be spoken to in Korean in Korea might go a long way toward explaining why Korean government and Korean corporate support for Korean language education overseas is so anemic–deep down in their hearts, educated Koreans don't believe foreigners either can _or should_ speak it, so why fund it?

  3. Thomas said,

    November 9, 2023 @ 1:17 am

    @Robert Ramsey, what a peculiar phrasing: “[he] has Korean children.”

    Other than that, it speaks volumes how even in the most educated contexts such as this blog, people are to some extent stumped by Western faces speaking perfectly fluent East Asian languages. I understand that this is a novelty due to the fact that the Korean (Japanese, Chinese…) society is quite closed to foreigners. But really, if we imagine the situation the other way around, we can maybe understand how bad the societal standing of immigrants in East Asia actually is.

  4. Jason said,

    November 9, 2023 @ 9:01 pm


    I just watched a Youtube video of a white man born of American parents, in Japan, who was raised in Japan, educated in Japan, and has spent most of his life in Japan, and only speaks English at a decent L2 level, and is so culturally assimilated that he declares he would "never" claim to be properly Japanese, purely because his face is the wrong shape. In other words, a sentiment which, if uttered by a westerner about an Asian immigrant, would have him hauled up for a speech crime in many parts of the western world.

    The irony of someone brought up in Japan who has so internalized the values of the Japanese that he regards himself as never capable of truly being accepted among them because of his race did not escape me.

  5. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 8:33 am

    Is it a "race" thing or an "ethnic" thing? In other words, can other East-Asians (e.g. Koreans, Chinese) "pass" as Japanese, or do they too form a permanent underclass?

    I remember in college witnessing an Ionescoesque debate (dorm room, not daïs) among two Japanese nationals and two Korean nationals — one of the Japanese and one of the Koreans was firmly convinced that it _is_ possible to tell the difference between a native Japanese, Korean, and Chinese by sight, and another of the Japanese and another of the Koreans arguing just as vehemently that it is patently _not_ possible to tell the difference among them by sight.

  6. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 9:02 am

    My comment was deleted. Was it a "html thing" or a "poster's-question-not-worth-addressing" thing? (Posted here for lack of "contact us" button).

    VHM: Your comment was not deleted. It was just sitting in the queue for moderation, where I found it and approved it just now (Nov. 10, around 9:10 AM). Sorry for the delay.

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 9:14 am

    Well to be fair, "we Westerns" more often live in contexts where observed associations between ethnic background / physiognomy and cultural behaviors including but not limited to language are somewhat tenuous… as opposed to strong to the point that many regular folks have never witnessed an exceptional case, as in parts of East Asia. So we *should* be more enlightened on this front — but still aren't doing so hot, of course, as (e.g.) any American with an East Asian face is keenly aware.

  8. Benjamin Ernest Orsatti said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 9:44 am

    Although there's a bit of Schadenfreude in Americans being able to point to some other group of people that are more bigoted than we are (supposed to be), Jonathan Smith makes a good point: it's easy for us stewing in this melting pot of ours to say, "Hey, don't judge people by face shape & eyelid folds!", but in the 1400's, while Europe was sending its exploration ships out to see, China was calling its own back into harbor. Homogeneity and diversity seem to each have their own sets of assets and liabilities.

    (To VHM: Sorry about that — on my browser, the prior comment had appeared appended to the post at first, and then disappeared. I thought I had given offense! I will read a book and learn how websites work).

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