Says South Korea’s Minister of National Defense: “In Africa, Only Ig’nunt Negros(*) Are Running Around!”

UPDATE 2: Thanks to the comment by Sonagi, here’s the video of his remarks. He does indeed stumble on what sounds like the first syllable of the word “깜둥이” which, indeed, is the infamous N-word.

(Note added: Actually, as Sonagi notes in the comments, it’s 껌둥이, but this is just a variant pronunciation of (as far as either of us know) equivalent meaning.) Also, the video seems not to be loading on my Firefox, but in case it works in IE I;’ve leave it embedded here. Here’s a link for those who cannot view it.)

And as per Sonagi’s comment, it is (once again) disheartening that this hasn’t gotten more press sooner in any major newspaper in Korea. I still think it’s good that it got any negative press at all, though. And it seems to have hit the big media now.

UPDATE: There’s good news and bad news. Which do you want first?

The good news? okay: I improved the translation after I got some feedback. Sorry! I tried!

The bad news? The comment was much more racist than I thought.

ORIGINAL POST: So says Kim Tae Young,  Korea’s Secretary of Defense.

It’s a paraphrased translation, of course, of what he actually said, in Korean. The line from the article is:

“…하지만 아프리카에는 밀림과 자연만 있다. 그게 관광명소냐. 무식한 흑인만 뛰어다니는 곳”이라고 문제의 발언을 했다.**

This is in the context of — well, trhe gist is that it’s something that was said during a meeting to discuss of the development of a naval base on Jeju Island, and locals who are opposed to the project  on ecological grounds. Kim was going on about how building a naval base needn’t destroy the natural beauty of a region. His example and cautionary counterexample? It’s been so wonderful for Capri, Italy, to have a developed harbor because of its base, leading to the establishment of wonderful sights for tourism and so on. But in Africa…

Well, said Kim, Africa — and he didn’t specify which country, if indeed he’s aware that Africa is more than one country — “Africa is all jungle and [undeveloped] nature. That’s the [only?] tourist attraction [offered by Africa]. Ignorant negroes run everything [there].”

UPDATE: Here’s a better translation: “Africa is all jungle and [undeveloped] nature. Is that a tourist attraction? Ignorant negroes just running around [wild]!” (Which implies, you know, savages half-naked running around that undeveloped jungle wild land.)

It’s not clear why he decided to slam the black race in general. Perhaps it’s just a kneejerk reaction, or maybe he was giving even more frightening cautionary advice to those pesky eco-concerned locals. Perhaps the implication boils down to, don’t oppose this, or not only will Jeju miss out an opportunity in development, but worse, you’ll be just like those Idiotic Negroes in Africa!

Even setting the blitheringly obvious racism aside, is he seriously saying that tourism will increase because of a naval base? Is increased tourism the only reason anyone in the Lee Administration can come up with for any project? (We’ve heard it before, about the Grand Canal plan, and about the Cheonggyecheon stream. It seems the main justification for anything that locals oppose these days.)

But it’s hard to set aside the blitheringly obvious racism, really, for more than a moment. Either way, for the irony-impaired, consider that this manifestly ignorant comment was made by Korea’s Minister of National Defense. Obviously, it’s not just in “Africa” that an ignorant or idiotic jackass can take a part in running a country.

The Korean media reaction is interesting, mind you. For those pessimists who see this as another excuse to mutter, “Ah, Korean Sparkling! Things will never change here…”: well, it’s worth noting that the article presents Kim’s comments as “problematic.” But optimists will be sobered by this sign that there’s a long way to go, especially when it comes the generation of men currently running the show here.

In any case, I somewhat doubt this will end up in the English-language press, which is why I am posting this here now… but I don’t want to misrepresent the situation, either. If I’ve gotten anything wrong or mixed-up, please let me know. I welcome any corrections or further information, and will update the article if I get any.

(* Yes, my choice of the word “negroes” is likely debatable. “흑인” literally is “black people” but when you stick “무식한” (“ignorant” or “idiotic”) in front of it, it doesn’t at all feel like a neutral descriptor of race — it feels like a racist epithet. I wanted to convey the inherent racism evident in the original, without using that other “N” word. “Ignorant blacks” doesn’t quite convey it, but the ick factor of the word “negro” as used by a non-black retired military general in 2010 hopefully does, at least for native English speakers.)

(**Question on quotation conventions in Korean, but I’ll put that below the cut, for those interested in a little language translation puzzle…

The quote ends:

“무식한 흑인만 뛰어다니는 곳”이라고 문제의 발언을 했다.

-이라고… 했다. If I want to chop off that ending, and just quote his words directly, as in,

His exact words were: “무식한 흑인만 뛰어다니는 곳…”

… then how do I conjugate the verb? Is there a default for that sort of quotation? Or do I need access to an original transcript? Can I simply choose, or would I assume he’s used 존대말? Would I just choose a form?

“무식한 흑인만 뛰어다니는 곳이다.”


“무식한 흑인만 뛰어다니는 곳입니다.”

I realize normally someone would use the attribution tag “-이라고… 했다” but I wonder if there is a specific rule, or rule of thumb, for the case when someone wants to report the exact wording, but doesn’t know whether the speaker used반말 or존대말 or some other conjugative suffix like-이고든요 or -이군 or whatever. Should I guess, or make up the conjugation, or just assume 존대말? Or go searching for transcripts that may not even exist? What would you do?)

10 thoughts on “Says South Korea’s Minister of National Defense: “In Africa, Only Ig’nunt Negros(*) Are Running Around!”

  1. Gah… I don’t even know how to react to this. I mean, I’m well aware of Koreans being ignorant and fearful of black people, but you’d think a politician in such a position would know better than to blurt it out like that.

    Of course, only African blacks are ignorant? Only ignorant blacks of Africa reach high positions? ALL blacks are ignorant? I’d love to hear his rationalization for the comment. :D

  2. Laura,

    Yeah, actually, I got the last sentence quite wrong — which shows you for trusting me to translate Korean to English — but, er, it’s worse than I original suggested.

    Internet rumor being what it is, I don’t know what to make of the claim someone made that he actually halfway said that other N-word.

    And apparently he has issued rationalizations for what he said. Which are also about as creditable as one might imagine.

  3. I first read about this a couple of days ago. I notice that only Jeju Sori and one other media outlet were covering the minister’s remarks at first. A day later, the silence of Jojoongdong was deafening. Haven’t checked back today to see if the story is getting wider coverage. It is suprising that someone whose career field put him in regular contact with people from other countries would make those remarks and on camera no less. I believe a video of his remarks can be viewed at Jeju Sori.

    1. Hey,

      Thanks for the tip about the video, it looks pretty obvious he was about to say “깜둥이” — and the omission of that from the reports is also problematic. They quote him as if he hadn’t halfway said a different word, realized it was a bad idea in front of cameras, and then chosen another word.

      I submit that lots of older Korean men I’ve met have been in contact with people from other countries and cultures retain all kinds of misconceptions and bigoted attitudes, and don’t quite get how offensive they are to others. Also, I think, there’s an assumption that things like this won’t be comprehensible to foreigners anyway, and that they won’t get translated in the media. So those “ignorant nig-, um, blacks,” will never actually hear about such comments anyway.

      It’s cool that the big media has picked up the story, finally. One wonders, though, what will come of it. I seriously doubt anything like resignation is likely, which shows how far we have to go here.

  4. And BTW, when I did another search last night, I looked at the dates of a few Jojoongdong articles, and the earliest appeared on Monday. They were covering it but not as a front page headline. My initial searches were leading to Jeju Sori and other lesser media websites.

  5. Sonagi, thanks for the update. I noticed that people seemed not to know what I was talking about when I brought it up a few times. Not enough coverage, I’d say, even if it did come up in articles as early as Monday.

    Filters: well, yes. I think a lot of Anglophones walk about with filters off too, here. But they’re hakwon teachers and college instructors; one hopes that more is expected of high ranking political officials.

  6. I watched the video again and have a minor correction. I think he starts to say 껌둥이 not 깜둥이, equivalent terms as far as I know.

    What bothers me about the gap in coverage is that it reflects partisanship, not differences in values. Leftist media are playing up the story with opposition party calls for resignation as an excuse to throw stones at one of LMB’s boys. I doubt there is much genuine feeling of disgust or offense as other middle-aged men probably use the same term in private to voice similar notions.

  7. Sonagi,

    I just figured 껌둥이 was some kind of variant pronunciation of 깜둥이, or that he was swallowing the word even as he began to say it. I’ll add a note, though. Thanks.

    Partisanship is something we see in a lot of media worldwide, don’t we? Though it’s sometimes much worse here than I’m used to. Or, rather, worse than anything I was accustomed to when I arrived here. The fact that all the major papers are obviously partisan worries me as much as the fact they’re partisan on the side I dislike more (though I dislike both sides a great deal).

    I agree that it seems unlikely many of the men of the same generation on the left actually feel disgusted or offended. But I wonder whether, as long as expressing those bigoted values gets one in trouble, such stone-throwing might help start to reshape the whole discourse.

    Or maybe it just becomes a game of making the racism and bigotry in one’s talk smell “clean,” as we see in many places.

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