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The cartoon saga adds to a snowballing list of headaches for Yoon, whose support has plunged since he took office. Photo: Twitter

South Korean officials take offence at anti-Yoon cartoon weeks after his UN ‘freedom’ speech

  • Authorities threaten sanctions against organisers of cartoon contest for allowing President Yoon Suk-yeol to be lampooned
  • Cartoon with Yoon’s face on a Thomas the Tank Engine-like locomotive apparently satirises accusations his wife has wielded undue influence over government
South Korea
An award-winning cartoon drawn by a secondary school girl has sparked controversy over freedom of expression in South Korea, as authorities threaten sanctions against award organisers for allowing President Yoon Suk-yeol to be lampooned.

“Yoonsukyeolcha”, created by Park Se-eun from Chonnam Arts High School, came in second overall in the nationwide student cartoon and webtoon contest organised by the Korea Manhwa Contents Agency (KOMANCO).

The name of the work combines Yoon’s name and the word “yeolcha”, meaning train in Korean. It was on display at the Korea Manhwa Museum during the Bucheon International Comics Festival hosted by the agency from Friday to Monday in Bucheon City near Seoul.

South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol during a ceremony marking the 74th anniversary of Armed Forces Day at the Military Base in Gyeryong city on October 1, 2022. Photo: Yonhap/AFP

The cartoon features a train with a Thomas the Tank Engine-like locomotive fronted by the face of Yoon and cabins carrying prosecutors wielding swords.

As the train roars down the track, panicky people, arms flailing widely, flee in all directions.

In the engine room stands a woman resembling the controversial first lady, Kim Keon-hee, while people wearing prosecutors’ official gowns and wielding swords ride the passenger cars behind.

The cartoon apparently satirises accusations that Yoon’s wife has wielded undue influence over the president and his administration, which enjoys strong support by prosecutors who allegedly like to go after Yoon’s political opponents.

Yoon was formerly the head of prosecutors, the Prosecutor General, before he entered politics a year before the May 2022 presidential election.

Lawmakers from rival parties on Tuesday argued over whether it was proper to award the cartoon, which ruling party lawmakers argued was distorting reality and too political for a high schooler’s work.

Yoo Sang-bum, a lawmaker from Yoon’s conservative People Power Party, contended that the student’s work had plagiarised a 2019 political cartoon about Boris Johnson captioned “The Runaway Train came down the track, and he blew …”

But Ki Dong-min, a lawmaker from the liberal opposition Democratic Party of Korea, said Yoonsukyeolcha was original compared with the first lady’s academic theses, which her critics say heavily copied others’ papers.

Ki said the government and the ruling party were applying a “strict standard” against a cartoon by a secondary school student and an “extremely indulgent” standard for the first lady’s theses, including her controversial doctoral degree paper allegedly laced with heavy plagiarism.

Hwang Kyo-Ik, a liberal columnist, said on his Facebook page the Yoon government was “openly restraining the freedom of expression”.

“Stop your attempts to turn the clock back to 50 years earlier,” he said.

‘Reports differ from the facts’: South Korea’s Yoon scolds media over hot mic

Other critics noted that Yoon himself often employed the theme of freedom during his public speeches, including the one he made at the United Nations General Assembly last month. He mentioned “freedom” 21 times during the 11-minute-long speech.

“That’s parody, not plagiarism. Idiots!” one internet user joked about the cartoon on the Daum news portal.

“Even a young student knows Kim wields influence and prosecutors are used to remove political opponents. Repent!” another wrote on the same portal.

KOMANCO said the judges were selected randomly from among a pool of experts in the cartoon industry, implying the panel did not have specific political inclinations and that the selection of winners was made fairly.

“Cartoons lampooning reality have existed for a long time,” an official of the agency told the Korea Times. The work received the second prize overall and the agency showcased it at the museum “so that many visitors could see it just like we have done with the contest winners every year”.


South Korea’s Yoon in hot water over alleged ‘hot mic’ moment criticising US Congress

South Korea’s Yoon in hot water over alleged ‘hot mic’ moment criticising US Congress

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism on Tuesday said the cartoon selection was against the contest’s purpose and hinted it would pull the plug on subsidies worth millions of dollars for the agency per year.

“Selecting and displaying a cartoon openly dealing with a political issue is against the purpose of the contest, which is to encourage students’ creative desire for cartooning,” the ministry said in a statement.

The cartoon saga adds to a snowballing list of headaches for Yoon, whose support has plunged over a series of personal and political controversies since he took office.

Last month, Yoon was overheard on a hot mic and seen on camera seemingly insulting US lawmakers soon after briefly meeting with US President Joe Biden at the Global Fund in New York. He has denied the charge, claiming to have been mistranslated.