Kim Tae Kyun of Korea during the finals of the 2009 World Baseball Classic on March 23, 2009 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California.
Kim Tae Kyun of Korea during the finals of the 2009 World Baseball Classic on March 23, 2009 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

At best, South Korean first baseman Kim Tae Kyun is just dumb. At worst, he's flat-out racist.

The Hanwa Eagles slugger is drawing heavy flack for some cringe-inducing comments about fellow Korea Baseball Organization player Shane Youman, an American pitcher who starts for the Lotte Giants.

Oh, and one more thing about Youman: he's black.

That, according to Kim, makes him especially difficult to play against. When asked by a sports radio host which pitcher he most dreaded facing at the plate, Kim replied: "The Lotte Giants' Youman is the most difficult player to play against. His face is too black, so it is hard to bat because his white teeth and the ball confuses me when he smiles on the mound. So, I suffered a lot." (Exact translations of the remarks vary, though no one disputes that Kim made a reference to Youman's skin color.)

The remarks triggered an outcry from South Korean fans. Kim has since apologized to Youman — who he called "a great player" — and insisted his words were taken out of context.

"I was just trying to say that Youman was a good pitcher because he has deception in his delivery that makes it hard to read at the plate," he said. "I have played in Japan and I know how hard it is for a player to adapt to a different culture. I am very close with the foreign players on my team like Denny Bautista [from the Dominican Republic]."

Youman himself shrugged off the controversy, saying stoically that "people make mistakes."

"I really feel that he made a big mistake, perhaps trying to be funny not thinking about the consequences of his words. Only Kim Tae Kyun knows," Youman told South Korean magazine Haps. "I feel that the majority of the folks here in Korea may not fully understand what racism is, or what can come off as being racist, because most people here haven't fully experienced it, or probably don't know anyone that has. Kim Tae Kyun I feel is part of that majority."

Other observers agree that South Koreans can be racially insensitive. For nearly all of its history, Korea has been an ethnically homogeneous society. Not all Koreans are racist, but xenophobia remains a problem in the country.

Over the past two decades, millions of Americans, Europeans, Southeast Asians, Indians and Africans have taken up work as English teachers and factory laborers in the country, and some have complained about discrimination. Many South Koreans report in polls that they've never personally met a foreigner.

The National Assembly has, over the past five years, discussed a number of proposals to punish racial insults, though no law has so far been passed.

Kim Tae Kyun's gaffe should be an opportunity to "raise awareness," Youman told the Yonhap news agency. "Awareness to educate folks more on race issues and what's acceptable to do, especially in sports. Maybe that's something Kim Tae Kyun should be involved in if it happens."