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[Reporter's Notebook] Lawmakers' Zelenskyy snub stains South Korea's image

Empty seats, tepid response fail to match Korea’s global status

A conference room in the basement floor of the National Assembly Library are sparsely filled on Monday as South Korea’s parliament prepares to host Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for a virtual speech. (Joint Press Corps)
A conference room in the basement floor of the National Assembly Library are sparsely filled on Monday as South Korea’s parliament prepares to host Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for a virtual speech. (Joint Press Corps)
South Korea became the 24th government to invite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for a livestreamed speech on Monday, as the international community continues to express support for Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion.

Zelenskyy gave his first virtual speech to the European Union on March 1 and spoke before political leaders of nations including the United States, Japan and Germany before speaking to South Korean lawmakers.

Hosting Zelenskyy to speak to political leaders and hear him out on Russian atrocities was a chance for South Korea to demonstrate its importance in the international community and its potential to serve as a model that other countries can follow.

But the preparations for the speech and the attitude politicians showed contrasted starkly with South Korea’s status as an advanced nation with a sizable presence in the international community.

While Zelenskyy spoke to packed houses in other legislatures, with lawmakers sometimes having to stand just to hear him, here he spoke to a half-empty room.

Photos taken during the event show that only 60 out of 300 legislators came to hear Zelenskyy’s speech, and some of the attendees were seen leaving the room during the event.

Even National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug was absent. Park’s office said the speaker watched the livestream of Zelenskyy’s speech in his office with his Swedish counterpart. But appearances matter, and his presence would have helped show South Korea’s commitment to supporting Ukraine.

And while standing ovations greeted Zelenskyy’s remarks in other nations’ parliaments, including the Diet in Japan, Korean lawmakers only offered the kind of half-hearted applause associated with mandatory attendance.

Zelenskyy urged South Korea during his 17-minute speech to provide arms support for Ukraine in its time of crisis, mentioning the fact that South Korea also received extensive help from overseas when fighting the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.

It is clear there’s a conflict of diplomatic and economic interests that prevents South Korea from providing lethal weaponry to Ukraine, and Ukraine probably recognizes the conundrum that South Korea faces as a small country with a high reliance on international trade.

But if the country does want to stand as a model for others and serve as an advanced nation with a great international presence, the least lawmakers could do was let President Zelenskyy and Ukrainians know that Koreans empathize with the tragedy and have no tolerance for violence -- especially against innocent civilians.

The indifference that South Korea showed Zelenskyy for a speech at this crucial moment -- and the lack of welcome from its politicians -- clearly indicate that South Korea is not ready to be a serious contender in the international community.

The country is at best a regional powerhouse. If it wants to be seriously considered at the global level, the least it could do is fill up the seats with attendees when inviting a president of another nation to address the parliament.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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