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South Korean politician hit by edited ‘Chinese face mask’ photo ahead of parliamentary election

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South Korea’s main opposition leader Lee Jae-myung did not wear a red face mask emblazoned with a Chinese flag while running for president in 2022, contrary to false claims by Facebook posts sharing a doctored photo of him days before parliamentary elections on April 10, 2024. The posts compared Lee to his election rival South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, pictured wearing a plain white mask. However, the original photo shows Lee wearing a mask with a slogan supporting South Korea’s finance industry — not a Chinese flag. Footage from the event in January 2022 shows Yoon donning the same red mask later at the event to celebrate the opening of the country’s stock market in the new year.

“During the presidential election, Lee Jae-myung insisted on wearing a red mask symbolising Communist China,” reads a Korean-language Facebook post shared on March 25.

“Candidate Yoon said he would wear a white mask.”

The post includes a side-by-side shot of Lee and Yoon signing a guestbook. While Yoon’s face mask is white, Lee is seen wearing a red mask adorned with a Chinese flag.

<span>Screenshot of the misleading claim shared on Facebook. Captured March 26, 2024.</span>

Screenshot of the misleading claim shared on Facebook. Captured March 26, 2024.

Lee is the head of South Korea’s largest opposition Democratic Party. He lost by a razor-thin margin to Yoon in the country’s previous presidential election in May 2022.

The opposition leader now aims to fend off challenges to his party’s parliamentary majority from Yoon’s ruling People Power Party in a nationwide election on April 10 (archived link).

The posts surfaced days after Lee was criticised for saying South Korea should remain neutral between China and Taiwan by saying “xie xie” to both sides — using the Chinese word for “thank you” — according to a local report (archived link).

The ruling party slammed Lee’s comments as “obsequience” to China, calling Lee’s party “anti-state forces that should not be allowed to gain power” (archived link).

The doctored image was widely shared by Facebook pages expressing support for Yoon’s People Power Party, including here, here, here and here.

Altered image

A reverse image search on Google found the original image published by the South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo on January 3, 2022, in a report about Lee and Yoon attending a New Year’s ceremony at the Korea Exchange to mark the opening of the stock market (archived link).

The report features various photos of Lee wearing a red mask decorated with a tiger illustration and the slogan “South Korea’s capital market will lead the world” — not a Chinese flag. Yoon is also seen wearing the same mask in some photos.

The third image in the report corresponds to the original photo of Lee and Yoon, clearly showing Lee’s mask with no Chinese flag.

Below is a screenshot comparison between the doctored image (left) and the original image published by the JoongAng Ilbo in January 2022 (right):

<span>Screenshot comparison between the doctored image (left) and the original image published by the JoongAng Ilbo in January 2022 (right)</span>

Screenshot comparison between the doctored image (left) and the original image published by the JoongAng Ilbo in January 2022 (right)

“Democratic Party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung (left) and People Power Party candidate Yoon Suk Yeol (right) each sign a guestbook ahead of the 2022 securities and derivatives market opening ceremony held at the Korea Exchange in Seoul on the morning of the 3rd,” the photo’s caption reads.

Lee and Yoon can be seen wearing the same red masks in photos of the ceremony published in multiple other local reports, including here, here and here (archived links here, here and here).

The one-hour event was also streamed live on Korea Exchange’s official YouTube account on January 3, 2022, showing Lee singing the guestbook at its 30-second mark (archived link).

Yoon can be seen signing the same guestbook while wearing a white mask at the 4:36 mark, but later donning Korea Exchange’s red mask over his white one before posing for a group photo at the 53:21 mark.

Lee has been a frequent target of disinformation leading up to the April parliamentary races, which AFP has debunked here, here and here.

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